This weekend I traveled with a group to Kanyakumari, the city at India’s southernmost tip, and it was a rollicking good time. The trip actually had somewhat of a rough start for me. While my digestive system has been in amazing shape since I arrived here, it of course became upset just before I boarded a six hour bus ride south, with only one stop about an hour and a half in. Thankfully, my stomach responded well to medication and it was a tolerable ride, but six hours on a cramped government bus is tough to begin with. Additionally, Siri and I had attempted to sit together, only for the conductor to force Siri to another seat. I ended up squished in a three-seater with a little boy and two Indian women, one of whom kept falling asleep on my shoulder.
So I was incredibly grateful when we finally arrived in Kanyakumari at about 9:30pm. Mr. Victor, our guide for the weekend and the sweetest man in all the world, led us straight to a restaurant for dinner, and then promptly to our hotel to go to bed. I haven’t slept that well in many weeks! The sea air makes the Indian heat so much more tolerable, even at India’s closest point to the equator. It was delightful to wake up not covered in sweat for once.
Saturday was jam-packed with things to see and do. Victor had rented us a fairly posh little bus, and we piled on to tour the area. Our first stop was a fort at the place where the three seas meet: the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Aside from a stunning sea vista and views of the lush mountains opposite that, I was actually able to see the three seas coming together. Each has differently colored water, and carries sand of different colors; a big swirl of water from around the eastern world! Mr. Victor, who is very small and therefore his sweetness is extra concentrated, collected the cameras of all thirteen or so of us and took a group shot. I wish that instead of my group shot, I could have taken one of him with all the cameras dangling from his arm!
The next stop was Padmanabhapuram Palace, which is 400 years old and housed kings and other royalty. Unlike most other structures in India, this palace is wooden, and elaborately so. Nearly every surface has been carved with beautiful detail. The ceilings often had wooden tiles, with each tile featuring a different flower. It was quite stunning. Also unusual for a structure in India, this palace was a comfortable temperature, even without the use of fans or AC! It was cleverly vented, and the floors were made of a special, all natural material, which included coconut shells, egg whites and a host of random other natural materials. It felt like porcelain, and resisted all heat. I don’t quite understand why if they had this figured out 400 years ago, the Indian people couldn’t adopt these ideas…
The third stop was Maathoor Thottipaalam, one of the longest bridges in Asia. I wasn’t enamored with the idea of visiting a bridge, but it’s location is simply stellar. The whole region is as lush and green as anywhere I’ve ever seen. Rivers flow through plantations of bananas and coconut, and lotuses bloom in the waterways. Neon colored homes are the norm, tucked into their verdant lots. Mountains pop up out of nowhere, as if to keep this Eden hidden away, and disappear into the clouds. We actually spent a lot of time on the bus, but hours were lost staring out the window.
Next stop: lunch. It was my first eat-with-ones-fingers-off-of-a-banana-leaf meal, and it was delicious. I found some rice in my hair later, if that’s any indication.
After the meal, our destinations turned aquatic. We stopped at Thiruparappu Waterfalls, where water falls 50 feet and onto the heads of the daring. Unable to wear our Western swimsuits, Siri, Hannah, Nadia and I bought the gowns that Indian women wear to sleep: huge, loose and long. And ugly. Siri and I managed to squeeze into the packed dressing rooms before Hannah and Nadia, so we were the first to the falls. All of the other volunteers elected not to go into the falls, and stood and watched us. We stuck out like sore thumbs. The crowd in the falls was mostly men, and the women who went in wore their saris or salwars. And there we were, the crazy white girls in our local nightgowns, laughing hysterically and grasping each other, trying not to slip on the algae. The water slammed down on our heads, but it felt amazing! It scrubbed us clean, and left us energized. Hannah and Nadia eventually found us in the chaos, and the four of us shuffled around the falls. Despite the mass amount of fabric involved in the gowns, somehow they still don’t allow for full steps. The wet fabric clung to our bodies, and we all agreed that we’d actually feel more comfortable if we had been allowed to wear bikinis. It was quite a hilarious show for the Indians, I’m sure, between the waddling and the constant tugging of the nightgown to hide ourselves.
We climbed back onto the bus in our wet nighties, for the next stop was the beach! Nadia and Hannah decided not to swim at the beach, but Siri and I went for it, and ran down the beach and into the water. Extremely bad idea! We hadn’t been warned that despite the outward appearance of a sandy beach, not far from the shore line it is one huge, extremely sharp rock. And the waves were enormous! As each one crashed into us, we’d struggle to find our footing on the sharp rocks, inevitably fall over and be scraped along the bottom, with the currents pulling our nightgowns up to our thighs, giving the Indians another show. We probably should have been discouraged, but it was a roaring good time, and we kept trying. Another downside of swimming in a polyester nightgown is that in water it acts like a sail in the wind, helping the waves pull us down. On the upside though, it protected our bums from scrapes! With no changing rooms available, we changed sitting on the floor of the back of the bus. Siri and I both had separate, terrifying but laughter inducing moments in which the wet gown got stuck on our bodies, exposing most of our bodies, as buses near to us began to move or unload. And so ended my first experience playing in the Indian Ocean. We drove back to the hotel, had a really phenomenal dinner, ordered for us by Mr. Victor and went to bed.
Early to rise! All of us got up at 5:20 and walked down the shore to see the sunrise. As we walked, I was surprised to discover that the call-to-prayers I’d been hearing were coming from a Christian church! Christianity is very widespread in Southern India, but it’s interesting to see what it may have borrowed from Indian religions. This weekend was Kanyakumari’s big festival, so we were far from the only ones watching the sunset. The wall by the shore was packed, as were the roofs and balconies of hotels. One amazing sunrise later, we were set free to explore Kanyakumari for a few hours. It was overwhelmingly touristy, with shop after shop selling the same overpriced crap. We were accosted by child beggars. It’s heartbreaking to see these little kids who are forced and trained to follow tourists around begging, but they are also incredibly annoying, grabbing hands and touching pockets. Overwhelmed by the tourist scene, Siri and I walked down the nearly empty pier, out into the Indian Ocean, and then explored the quiet residential streets. While exploring a towering Christian church, we met a Bulgarian expat, living at the church, who took us up to the roof for a stellar view of the city.
Heading back to our hotel, we discovered the streets covered in fresh flowers from the festival’s parade. Siri and I both squatted to take photos, and upon standing up were surprised to discover and elephant standing right behind us! Siri had not yet been blessed, so she paid her ten rupees and received a trunk blessing, like I had the weekend before. I’m grateful to have found a friend who is equally as happy to meet an elephant! Riding an elephant is tops on both of our lists of things to do in India, so next weekend we’re planning a trip to Thekkady, India’s largest national park, where they offer elephant rides. Hooray!
After that, we hopped back on a bus for the long ride back to Madurai. My next escape is not far off though! Tomorrow the same small group that went to the leprosarium leaves Madurai for a two day visit to an ayurvedic clinic, which I’m very excited about! And apparently they offer massage. This ought to be a good one.