Unable to get seats on a train from Kanyakumari, we had to retrace the 16 miles back along the coast to Nagercoil to get a train to Madurai, an undemanding 4 hour journey through a landscape that, once past the lumpy almost-Ghats mountains, bore no resemblance to the lush rice and dense coconut groves of the west coast – scrubby bushes interspersed small fields of maize, cotton and vegetables, wind farms, and as many date palms as coconuts.
The Pearl Hotel was a walkable distance from the station. I’d booked it online for one night, but in reality it was more dismal than it looked on the website. If we’d been planning a longer stay we might have moved on, but decent hotels in our price bracket are inconveniently located across the river – the Pearl was within walking distance of the Meenakshi temple that is Madurai’s main draw.
We also discovered that it was opposite an excellent South Indian canteen, Sri Sabarees, a place that made other fast food joints look positively lethargic. We had eaten there the previous evening and it had been reasonably busy, but breakfast was a whole new experience.
After elbowing through the throngs outside drinking chai and coffee from tiny glasses, we entered the packed restaurant and were steered towards a table that appeared to be occupied. However, as we approached two of the four customers stood up to leave so we slid into their seats, nodding politely at the bent heads of our dining companions. They didn’t look up – obviously sharing your table with strangers was the norm. We gave our order for dosas and coffee without waiting for menus, and the dosas were on the table before we could blink.
By the time the coffee arrived couple of minutes later, our table mates had finished their meal and been replaced by two new diners who already had their idlis and lentil fritters. The waiter returned after another three minutes to asked if we wanted anything more, and in response to our negative reply, plonked down the bill which in due course we took to the till – our replacements were by our seats before we’d finished standing up, and we were out of the door less than 15 minutes after we entered.
The food at Sree Sabarees was excellent but it was not the place for relaxed dining, so for dinner we went to the rooftop restaurant at the Madurai Residency hotel around the corner from the Pearl. However we drew the line at Rs275 for a beer, and got a takeaway from one of the beer shops in the same street as our hotel. The other takeaway we got, for lunch, was a selection of excellent savoury pastries from the bakery on the south side of our block of streets.
Unfortunately cameras are now banned from the Meenakshi temple, and a thorough search at the entrance means that there is little chance of smuggling one in. The ban seems a bit pointless though, since mobile phones are allowed, and many visitors were openly taking photos with them. The temple is impressive – the compound covers 45 acres with gopuras (ornate gate towers) up to 170ft tall, and it dates back at least to the 7th century. Goodness knows how long it took to carve the hundreds of images inside the temple and on the gopuras. Only Hindus are allowed into the core of the temple (I inadvertently wandered into a forbidden area through an unmanned door and was later ejected – oops!), but there was plenty of atmosphere and activity in the outer halls, including the bathing of a Nandi (bull) statue with gallons of milk, yoghurt and butter.
From Madurai we travelled to Tiruchirapalli – there is a temple on a rock there, but mainly it was a place from which we could visit Thanjavur, formerly Tanjore, one of the great temples of Tamil Nadu and famous for its thousand year old Chola bronzes. In fact Trichy was pretty dull, and we struggled to find anywhere decent to eat. The Susee Park hotel did have a restaurant, but it was closed for the Pongal holiday.
Eventually we discovered that the nearby Hotel Royal Sathayam, just around the corner, had a restaurant that was oddly located at the far side of its underground car park. It wasn’t the best and the tablecloths were filthy, but it was better than anywhere else we’d seen. We’d only booked one night at the Susee Park, so we decided to move to the Royal Sathayam for the other two nights that we planned to stay in Trichy.
We never made it to Thanjavur. We got as far as the stop for the bus that would take us into the city centre to change to a bus for Thanjavur, when I realised that I didn’t feel 100%, so we returned to the hotel. I didn’t leave the room for the next 2 days. We could have extended our stay in Trichy until I was well enough for the day trip to Thanjavur, but having a second bout of diahorrea less than two weeks after the first really took it out of me. I just wanted to get somewhere with decent food and Trichy was decidedly lacking in charm, so we decided to press on to Pondicherry as quickly as possible.
Pondicherry is a former French territory, but it’s no Paris sur la Mer Indienne. There is a handful of French colonial public buildings, balconied, colour-washed houses give a few streets a Mediterranean feel, and there is a sprinkling of cafés, bakeries and restaurants serving good coffee and French-ish food – but in my recovering state all I could face was pasta, pizza and savoury pastries. Pondicherry doesn’t have a bathing beach, just rocks, a narrow strip of scruffy sand and a windy promenade – overall it was OK, but not somewhere that tempted us to stay for more than a couple of days.
This created a dilemma – we’d moved through Tamil Nadu quite quickly and if we carried on up the east coast at the same pace we’d reach Calcutta weeks before our scheduled flight to Hong Kong. One option was to carry on northwards beyond Calcutta, maybe to Darjeeling and Gangtok – but that would be a lot of travelling and the climate wouldn’t be ideal. In any case I wasn’t looking forward to the east coast part of the trip as it would take 3 long train days to get to Bhubaneswar, the first place of any interest, and to break up the journey would mean stopping in places just for the sake of stopping.
I was also beginning to have doubts about what sort of accommodation our budget would get us in Hong Kong (a tiny, windowless room in a fire-trap tenement probably), and wasn’t sure where should go in China (negotiate the difficult transport connections along the SE coast? or revisit places we went in1987?). Maybe it was because I still wasn’t feeling great, but the whole travel thing was beginning to seem like a chore. We’d promised ourselves that we would travel in a leisurely fashion, but it felt as though we were trying to pack too much in, always on the move.
We didn’t debate the solution for long – fly from Chennai back to Goa, rent an apartment or house, and chill for the remaining 2 months of our visa. Way back when the whole trip was pie in the sky we’d said that we wanted to experience living in India, rather than just travelling through it. We could decide later whether to fly to Calcutta for our Hong Kong flight or, since they were 80% refundable, cancel the Hong Kong tickets and go somewhere else. A few mouse clicks and it was arranged, with just a 3 night stop in Chennai first.
Chennai was unremarkable. It has no real tourist sites and unfortunately the museum, where I’d hoped to see Chola bronzes like the ones we would have seen in Thanjavur, was closed for a couple of days for a public holiday. So we strolled the hotel neighbourhood and went shopping for a computer part and some more malaria tablets. Our meanderings took us to a shopping mall – not something I’m normally a fan of, but at least they have air conditioning. This one also had, astonishingly, a Marks and Spencer – but sadly no food hall, and the prices of clothes were the same as in the UK so we left empty handed.
And so in due course we landed back in Goa, and as the taxi travelled north from Dabolim airport I gazed at the coconut palms and smiled at the sea and noticed how relatively litter free the verges were, and knew we’d made the right decision. Some people say that Goa isn’t ‘real India’, it’s ‘India lite’ – which, I’m not ashamed to say, suited us just fine.