Tuesday, 6 March 2012

On the train to Chennai

I am writing this from the train as we pass through Tamil Nadu, dry grasslands and granite slabs curving up to the sky in a heat haze. We are on our final rail journey in India, 17 hours crossing the interior from close to the southern tip to Chennai on the East Coast.
Our month in India has been full, and as we look back we wonder how so much has fitted in. Never staying anywhere more than two or three nights has meant plenty of bus and train journeys, but it's also allowed us to see a lot of the country. Since I last wrote we have been to wildlife reserves, had journeys interrupted by strikes, visited a hindu festival, explored the backwaters of Kerala by houseboat and canoe, and trekked through tea plantations and around hill stations.

Tea picking in the hills

The Indian wildlife experience is a little different from what we were expecting. We headed to the hills to experience the peace of the forest, but so did a lot of Indian tourists. Indians on holiday know how to enjoy themselves, and this is usually not by quiet contemplation of their surroundings, more by constant chatter and laughter in big, happy family groups dressed in their sunday best. It's testament to how good the habitat must be that we saw any wildlife at all. Our first jeep safari into the Tholpetty wildlife reserve in Wayanad was a disappointment. The jeep sped far too fast along a bumpy track through a woodland scene of spindly trees and shrubs, occasionally pointing out 'deer', 'squirrel' and the like. We didn't learn anything, and it felt and looked more like an English woodland than the lush jungle we expected of prime tiger territory. To our surprise, on our second trip we saw elephants, and with no other jeeps around. The driver even stopped the engine, and we watched in awe as one of the massive creatures ambled out of the trees, nonchalantly crossed the track a few metres in front of us and slowly crunched his way through the vegetation.

The next time we saw a wild elephant he was even less concerned by the presence of people- we were on a double-decker metal boat filled with rowdy Indian tourists in orange lifejackets, in convoy with three similarly packed boats. The trips out onto the massive watering hole that is Periyar Lake in South India's most popular nature reserve seem to be more of a social occasion than a wildlife experience. In India boat trips are popular, silence isn't. This didn't deter the elephant, a male who walked down to the shore through the mist and proceeded to wade and then swim right between two boats and their churning, spluttering diesel engines. Almost entirely disappearing beneath the water, he extended the tip of his trunk as a snorkel, pausing to snort through it every couple of strokes. It was worth the long bus journey and the crowds for this moment, but we still think we'll leave the wildlife safaris for Africa in future. It's depressing to think about the state of Indian tigers, still faring better than in the rest of Asia, but with much of the funding for their protection lining corrupt officials' pockets and paying for private school fees for their children, while poaching of the remaining 1000 or so tigers continues unabated, with allegedly about one tiger lost every day.

Elephants in the mist

In contrast to the crowds of the wildlife reserves, we enjoyed 24 hours of utter peace on a punted houseboat in the Keralan backwaters. Initially put off by the knowledge that there are over 1000 motorised houseboats in Kerala, we were lucky to find one of the few companies offering a more ecofriendly traditionally punted craft, in a very quiet area of the backwaters. We set off with a crew of three, two boatmen and a cook, to explore the canals and lagoons that make up this part of India. It felt very decadent lounging in the shade in deckchairs while all the hard work was done for us, and mounds of delicious Keralan dishes piled in front of us. The waters were mirror still, the boat cutting through reflections of the palm trees that line the canal banks.

Punting through the peaceful backwaters

Traditional cantilevered Chinese fishing nets on bamboo frames dipped below the surface, and we watched kingfishers dart along the bank and a white headed eagle plunge to the water, emerging with a shining fish wriggling between its talons. We were very lucky to be in an area with no motorised boats at all. The locals travel by wooden canoes, and they were all ridiculously friendly. Everyone we passed met us with big grins and wanted to exchange names and 'how do you do's. Inbetween these meetings there was only the sound of birdsong and the splash of the bamboo pole used as a punt. Best of all was when we took a walk across from the backwaters to a palm fringed beach covered with colourful wooden boats and friendly fishermen. The morning's catch was being brought in, and basket after basket of silver sardines were carried from the heavily laden canoes and lined up on the sand. To be there, far from the tourists of other beaches, was really special and we were made to feel very welcome. In the evening we took out a canoe to explore a bit further around the canals on our own, as fishermen laughed at the sight of a white couple in a canoe and children waved from the banks. It was as idyllic a trip as we could have hoped for.

Unloading the sardine catch

There's so much more I could write about the last couple of weeks- the Portuguese flavour and antique curio lined lanes of Fort Cochin (by far our favourite Indian town), racing through the night on a rickshaw to try and beat the transport ban of an all India strike, drinking tea at source in the plantations of the hills, snacking on fresh cinnamon leaves and seeing possibly the biggest lemon in the world in a spice garden, posing for numerous family pictures in the botanical gardens of Ooty (we must be on a mantelpiece somewhere in India by now!), trekking through colourful villages and eucalyptus forests, experiencing the decorated elephants and flaming torches of a Hindu temple festival... But I think it's time to leave this entry and get back to eating banana fritters and watching the countryside go by through the train window.

Elephants at the Shiva festival
Chinese fishing nets at Fort Cochin
The world's largest lemon?!

Tomorrow we leave mainland India for the coral reefs and crocodiles of the Andaman Islands, an isolated archipelago much closer to Indonesia than India. We're very excited about what we might find there, the possibility of some surfing for Karl and the opportunity to dive and snorkel in warm, clear waters (sorry to anyone reading this while at work!).


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