Trains, trunks, temples and terrible tailors!

January 19, 2012 - Madurai, India


1. Where the devil have I been?Chinese fishing nets

On the morning of Wednesday 11th January I awoke from the first of many train sleeps to find myself in Mangalore, a bustling coastal town in the state of Karnataka. After trudging around the stupidly busy streets with all our luggage for what felt like years, we got the distinct impression that we weren’t really wanted there. So we hopped straight onto the next southbound train and spent the night in Kozhikode Officially the weirdest dance performance EVER!instead. From there we headed inland for a quick visit to Wayanad Wildlife Reserve, home to elephants, deer, monkeys, bison and (allegedly) the odd tiger. Satisfied having (eventually) spotted a few of the trunked beasts, we made our way further south to Kochi, a major port in the lush green state of Kerala.  Few days there gave us time to learn some more Indian cookery skills, take a scenic boat trip on the backwaters, eat plenty of seafood and witness the weirdest dance performance you could possibly imagine. The next stop on our Southern itinerary was Varkala, a beach town perched on a cliff edge, which served as an oh-so-welcome break from the insanity of Indian cities. Once our batteries were fully recharged we took a slightly pointless trip to Kanyakumari, the southernmost point of India. My guidebook informed us that fromHindus...can't get enough of the arms! the harbour it was possible to watch the sun set over three oceans at the same time…unfortunately though, our train was so late that we didn’t arrive until it was already dark! The following day, with our compass set to north east, we journeyed up to Madurai, home to a cool temple, lots of annoying tailors and my favourite (so far) restaurant in India. Well fed, but hungry for more culture, we made a quick stop in Trichy, another temple town, before boarding the night train to Bangalore…

2. Most memorable meal

It's the time of writing, Shree Sabareesh in Madurai is my favourite restaurant in the whole of India! Every meal I had there (2 dinners and 2 breakfasts) was incredibly tasty, delicately spiced and still at an amazingly low price. It's also the only restaurant I've encountered in India which has women working in the kitchen and the only one which seems to make a special effort with food presentation (everything was served on banana leaves with vegetable carvings!)...coincidence?! Oh, and did I mention that it was right next door to our hotel?! If you ever find yourself in Madurai...GO THERE!!!

3. Favourite photo

The best of Indian streets...

Street scene near the market place, Madurai. Indian city streets are incredible places. Bustling with life, humming with the sound of  hundred conversations and just as many vehicle horns, and smelling far from sweet. Most of the photos I have taken on such streets probably don't exactly show India in the most positive of lights, as I seem to have a tendency to focus more on the obscene than the divine. I like this photo because it shows the Indian street as it would like to be seen...bursting with colour and light.

4. Best bargain

The main attractions of a visit to Kochi are all to be found in the Fort Cochin area, a short boat ride (or a much longer bus ride) away from Ernakulam, the commercial and industrial centre of the city. The boat journey takes about 15 minutes and costs a whopping 2.5 rupees (3p). And the great big, scary English lady we met in the queue told us she even saw dolphins from the boat once! I think the dolphins bit was probably a lie, but still...what a bargain!

Look Me! You get something special!

5. Favourite sign

"All spices market. Look me! You get something special." Has there ever been a more tempting sign?! I for one, could not resist. I looked in the spice market...I didn't buy spices...but I did get some cashew nuts...they were alright, but nothing special. Bit of a let down.

6. Fashion crime of the week

Punting in nappies...standard.

So, as a woman in India, it is seen as pretty undignified to wear clothing which fails to cover the knees or the shoulders. The men, however, are positively encouraged to wear what is most accurately described as a nappy mini skirt made by wrapping their legs up in a large tea towel. The men constantly readjust their 'dhotis' (as they are locally known), flashing their scrawny legs (and saggy briefs if you're really lucky) in the process.

Mahatma Gandhi: role model - yes, style icon - not so much.

7. Crap tourist attraction of the week

Wayanad - the elephant reserve with no elephants!

In the hope of seeing Indian elephants in the wild for the first time, we took the stupidly early bus to the gates of Wayanad wildlife reserve, queued for a ticket, hired a guide & driver, and set off into theElephants at last! park. With our tired early morning eyes trained on the surrounding forest, we searched for any hint of a trunk, tusk or oversized ear. An hour and a half later and we found ourselves covered in dust, having seen nothing more than a couple of bison and a family of deer. Full of disappointment we exited the nature reserve and began the much less scenic drive along the main road back down to the town of Mananthavadi. Suddenly my daydream was interrupted by the shout of "Elephants!" from somewhere inside the vehicle. The driver slammed on the brakes and the car skidded to a halt about 20 metres away from a family of elephants enjoying a meal in the undergrowth. Hoorah! The elephants posed for photographs for a minute or two before a few more vehicles arrived and they retreated back into the bushes.

Varkala beach...lovely lovely lovely!8. Best view

Arriving in the clifftop beach town of Varkala late in the evening meant that we had to wait until the following morning to fully appreciate the view down to the beach. But it was worth the delay!



9. Div of the week

Despite being crowned the div of the week, the anonymous tailor from Madurai did prove to be useful in two ways: he was the person who recommended Shree Sabareesh restaurant (see no. 2) and he did a very fine job of fixing the zip on a pair of my shorts. Unfortunately this was not enough to grant him forgiveness for his horrific sence of timing and lack of manners. Having somehow persuaded Soph to have not one, but two pairs of cotton trousers made, he took her measurements (without writing anything down of course) and promised to deliver the goods to our hotel at 9 the following morning. With the alarm set for 8.30, it was somewhat surprising to be suddenly woken by loud banging on our hotel room door. Confused and still half asleep, we ignored the noise. But then it came again, this time accompanied by a twisting of the fortunately locked door. I checked my watch and the time was 6.45am...surely it couldn't be the tailor who had rudely interrupted our slumber. But there he was - grinning and waving trousers above his head when Soph got up and answered the door. "It's 6.45 in the morning! You said you were coming at 9!" Soph exclaimed. "But I've finished!" replied the overly chirpy tailor. So after thwarting his attempts to enter the room to show me what a great job he had done on my shorts, Soph relieved him of the items and suggested that it would be better for her to try her trousers on later when she could actually see. Then we would come back to his shop if there were any problems. So a couple of hours later she discovered (of course) that the trousers were massivelyGetting measured up! too big. So we weaved our way through the back streets of Madurai, to the tailor's shop to arrange for adjustments to be made. More measurements were taken (but not with pen and paper) and the tailor again gave his word that he would deliver his completed work to our hotel at 9 the following morning. "But do you actually mean 9 o'clock this time?" I asked. "Yes, yes, 9 o'clock, of course my friend. No problem." the tailor assured me. And so, our punishment for being too trusting arrived at 7.30 the next morning as the tailor AGAIN woke us up with his loud banging and attempted forced entry. And after all that, Soph didn't even really like the trousers! Lesson learnt.

10. Dodgy moment of the week

After spotting a dead one on the beach and very nearly cycling over a baby one in Goa, my third encounter with an Indian snake ranked slightly higher on the danger scale for 3 reasons. Firstly, the slippery creature was well and truly alive. Secondly, it was swimming through a narrow canal towards my canoe during a backwaters boat trip in Kerala. And thirdly, it was MASSIVE! Okay so perhaps is wasn't quite an Amazonian anaconda and perhaps the water magnified its size slightly, but it was still big enough to make the fully grown Indian man behind me squeal with fright! Luckily, the scaly beast either already had a belly full of tourists or it lacked that killer instinct, so everyone on the boat survived unscathed.

11. Motto of the week

"Keep calm and carry on"

With typically British stoicism, this is the only was to approach the bizarre and often infuriating way of life in India. People promise one thing but deliver something completely different. Everyone wants to help but no-one actually knows the answer. Personal space is non-existent. And, as a woman, you are frequently ignored, "accidentally" bumped into or giggled at. There are some things I will never get used to, but in India there is little alternative but to grin and bear it.

12. Magic 8 Ball adventure

The 8 Ball didn't get much action this week, apart from to advise us not to bother hanging around in Mangalore after approximately 6 hotels turned us away saying they were full. The 8 ball knows when it's not welcome, and it won't be returning to Mangalore in a hurry.

13. Brit abroad moment of the week

Although the lengthy British rule in India perhaps didn't totally have the best interests of the local people at heart at all times, you have to wonder what the Indians would drink if it wasn’t for the Brits. Tea (well chai technically) is just as much of an institution in India as it is back home. The people drink it anywhere and everywhere and at all times of day. On every street corner Gandhi lookalikes stir huge vats of steaming sickly sweet milk, as customers squat on the pavement sipping from tiny cups. It is inevitable that the first sound you will hear as you wake from a night on an Indian sleeper train will be the dulcet tones of a ‘chai wallah’ advertising his wares at full volume. And it is difficult to imagine that any business deal has ever been sealed without the assistance of a sugary brew or two.

14. On another planet moment of the week

I like to think that in the UK we believe in calling a spade a spade. Unfortunately, in India they believe in calling a spade a rake, and then sometimes referring to it as a hoe, just to confuse the hell out of everyone. I first experienced ths phenomenon whilst attempting to purchase a train ticket from Mangalore station. I confidently strolled up to the counter and requested two tickets to Kozhikode and the man behind the desk looked at me like I was insane. I repeated my request, but he clearly had no idea what I was talking about. Luckily for us, te Lonely Planet book had informed me that Kozhikode was also sometimes called Calicut, so I gave that a whirl instead. Success! So I made a mental note of the fact that Kozhikode should be referred to as Calicut from now on and we boarded the train. Not knowing quite when we were due to arrive at our destination, we kept a look out for Calicut on the station signs every time we pulled into a platform. So it came as quite a surprise when we arrived at a station adorned with signs welcoming us to Kozhikode, with no mention of the city’s alternative name! Such confusion! And Calicut/Kozhikode is not the only culprit…other double named places include Mumbai/Bombay, Kolkata/Calcutta, Panaji/Panjim, Trichy/Tiruchirappalli, Thalasseri/Tellicherry, and my personal favourite Thiruvanathapuram/Trivandrum. Seriously India, just choose one name for a place and stick with it! Then, as if that wasn’t enough to mess with our heads, Indian businesses also have a habit of using English words on their signs, but giving them an alternative meaning. My favourite example of this is the use of the word hotel to mean restaurant. I don’t know who was more confused, us or the staff, when we walked into New Hotel (Established 1969 – it actually says this on the sign!) with all our luggage, were instructed to wash our hands, lead to a table and given a menu before leaving because they couldn’t provide a room for the night!

15. Favourite person of the week

Dunston, the owner of our guesthouse in Varkala was an interesting guy. He looked like a cross between Mowgli from the Jungle Book and a yoga instructor and he spent every minute of every day guarding the guesthouse with the assistance of a few Home Alone style booby traps. In the short time we knew him, Dunston seemed to have two main intentions when it came to looking after his guests. Firstly he did his very best to dissuade us from swimming in Varkala’s apparently lethal surf by warning us of its dangers every time we left the guesthouse. Regardless of where we were going (to a restaurant for an evening meal / to the beach for a run / to the shop around the corner for toilet roll) he made us promise not to go further than ankle depth into the water. His second intention seemed to be to scare the bejesus out of guests by jumping out at them from behind a curtain whenever they returned to the guesthouse in the dark. Or maybe that was just for us.

16. Snack of the week

In India, the amount of time spent waiting around in train stations shows a strong positive correlation with consumption of deep fried snacks. Consequently, this fortnight I have been mostly eating vegetable samosas, vadai (doughnut type things) and the sweetcorn poo cakes whose name I am yet to learn.

17. Bizarre conversation of the week

Whilst trying to establish what time the next bus to Madurai left from a bus stand…

Soph: Excuse me. Is this the bus to Madurai?

Conductor: No. This is the bus to Nagercoil. No bus to Madurai, only Nagercoil. One hour to Nagercoil then 5 minutes bus to Madurai.

Soph: So there is no bus which goes directly to Madurai?

Conductor: Yes, 10:30.

Soph: 10:30, okay thanks.

(We thought it best to confirm this slightly dubious information so went to the ticket window.)

Soph: Hi. What time is the next bus to Madurai please?

Ticket man: 11:30.

Soph: 11:30? There isn’t a bus at 10:30?

Ticket man: 11:30 direct bus. Very fast. Express. No stopping. To Madurai.

Me: Okay, but is there an earlier bus which also stops in Madurai? Not express.

Ticket man: Yes, 1:20.

Me: Right. That’s not earlier though is it!

Soph: So is there a bus to Madurai at 10:30?

Ticket man: or 11:00 or 11:30.

Me: So there IS a bus at 10:30?

Ticket man: or 11:00 or 11:30.

Me: Okay, great. Thanks!

(The bus to Madurai left at 10:50!)

18. Best game invention

“Dead or sleeping?” The bigger the city, the easier it is to play this game. All you have to do is locate a motionless body on the floor (never too difficult) and guess whether the person is dead or only sleeping. Then give the body a poke to discover if you were right or wrong! For the game to be fair the subject’s face must be hidden, and bonus points are available if the body is found in an interesting location e.g. in the middle of a busy path, underneath a ticket window or on a boat.

19. High point of the week

After going a disgusting amount of time without doing any proper exercise, I finally got my endorphin hit at Varkala beach. Early in the morning (okay it was 8 o’clock, but that is pretty early for me at the moment) I got dressed into my sportiest outfit (headband included), listened to a quick safety brief from Dunston (see no. 15) and set off down to the beach for a run on the sand. A few other westerners had had the same idea and were either jogging, swimming or assuming interesting yoga positions in the warm morning sunshine. What a way to start the day!

favourite bathroom20. Low point of the week

Why is it that my digestive system insists on saving the most unsavoury of its deposits for the most unpleasant toilet facilities?! Our hotel in Kanyakumari clearly didn’t pride itself on its bathroom cleanliness , as demonstrated by the state of what I’m assuming was a mirror in a past life (I had taken a photo of the rest of the bathroom, but my camera appears to have somehow deleted it without my permission)! But of course, it was in this grotto of filth that I spent far too much of the morning for my liking. But, on the positive side, at least all that squatting is good for the thighs eh!



Officially the weirdest dance performance EVER!
Kathakali make up application
Look Me! You get something special!
Anyone for a Spirograph souvenir?


March 1, 2012
Hi Kate
I am envious as well as sometimes a little dubious of the wisdom of some of your adventures. However another great read - I can almost taste the food.
Make the most of the rest of your trip will see you in April Love Dad xx

Hi Kate
missing you loads, love the new hairstyle!
Love Charlotte xxx
March 3, 2012
Hi Sweetheart
India sounds interesting! Not sure of thwisdom of the 'dead or sleeping' game! Could be dangerous poking folks in the street and what happens if you find a dead body!!
Missing you loads. Enjoy Thailand - think you might be there by now? XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
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