Thursday, December 29, 2011

Why Exactly is Nandi Smiling?

how exactly is this a national highway?
Since there was no room at the inn, we moved on in the morning.  Our next destination was Hampi, which is about 240 miles northeast of Belur, so we got on the road before 8am.  The ride was tough, and in one stretch where the road all but disappeared, it took over an hour to go twelve miles.  The scenery was nice, lots of farmland again, but with the addition of herds of water buffaloes, cattle, and goats.  We shared the road with numerous herdsmen moving their beasts from one place to another.  As we approached one town along the way, the roadsides were filled with small trucks and carts and people walking bullocks.  As we entered the center of town, the street was filled with very clean bullocks and water buffaloes being led to the market for auction(?).  About eight miles before Hampi, we rode through the city of Hospet.  On the main road out of the city on the Hampi side, we saw... an upholstery shop with motorcycle seats on display out front.  Colin marked the location with his GPS (maybe Santa will bring us new seats for Christmas!).  We did finally make it to Hampi by about 5:30 in the afternoon, found our guesthouse, registered, schlepped our junk up the stairs into our tiny room, and collapsed there for a few minutes.  While taking the bags off the bikes, Colin noticed that my rack had again broken.  Aarrgh, these damnable roads!  Since we were exhausted and our guesthouse had a reputedly very good restaurant on the rooftop, we climbed the steps, ate a delicious dinner, and then went downstairs to bed. 

Me on Hemakuta Hill
After yesterday's marathon ride, neither Re nor I was in a hurry to get out of bed.  The combination of bad roads, speedbumps, and collapsed seat foam is hard on our butts and backs, and we ain't as young as we used to be.  Sometime around 10:00 we made our way back upstairs for a big breakfast.  Suitably fortified, we headed out on foot to see the local sights along the river.  Hampi is a Unesco World Heritage Site, full of the remains of a former capital city of a regional royal empire.  By the 16th century Hampi was a thriving metropolis of about half a million people.  By the mid-1500s, however, the city was razed by a confederacy of rival sultanates.  The boulder-strewn landscape is dotted with ruins for miles around.  We first walked up Hemakuta Hill, which is dotted with the remains of old temples and offers an expansive view of the Virupaksha Temple and the nearby Tungabhadra River.  

Nandi's rump
 After surveying the sights, we made our way down through the small bazaar and to the monolithic Nandi statue.  As you may recall, Nandi is Shiva's buddy, and statues of him are frequently seen on temple grounds.  This Nandi was huge.  After I got my picture taken sitting on Nandi's knee, we strolled around back to discover that this Nandi was at least partially anatomically correct.  Jutting out the backside of Nandi was an enormous set of balls, and I tried to convince Re that rubbing them would bring her good luck and no more crashes.  I don't think she believed me, but she gave them a vigorous rub anyway.  Who knows?  After walking back around to the front, I noticed that Nandi seemed to be smiling a little bit more.  Balls rubbed, we walked up over the hill to the remains of the Achyutaraya Temple and then made our way through the ruins of the Sule bazaar.  After admiring the remains of the carvings and massive size of the ruins, we walked north to the river where we followed the path to lunch.  We had a delicious thali at a restaurant overlooking the river. 

Sunset at Hemakuta Hill
Later that afternoon, we walked out to look for an ATM but found none in town.  We then toured the Virupaksha Temple, the working temple in town.  It is one of Hampi's oldest remaining structures, having survived the destruction of the city nearly 500 years ago.  We arrived around pooja time and joined the busloads of students who were there to worship.  Since the sun was setting, we quickly made our way back up Hemakuta Hill to the sunset view point.  After catching up on email at an internet cafe, we got some dinner and then worked on ride reports until bedtime. 

The Queen's Bath
Since it was Christmas day in a rather un-Christmas-y place, we decided to shower to the accompaniment of Christmas carols on the iPod.  We walked back along the river to the same restaurant where we had lunch yesterday for a breakfast of fruit, muesli, curd, and honey and a cup of coffee.  It wasn't my mom's Christmas coffee cake, but it was still pretty good.  While we sat, we watched the kingfishers dive into the river for a holiday breakfast of their own and saw monkeys warming themselves in the sun.  

The Elephant Stable
 We then resumed our tour of Hampi's ruins with some of the outlying temples.  Our first stop was the Queen's bath, which was surprisingly elaborately decorated on the inside.  We then rode the short distance to the Royal Center, where we wandered through another set of massive ruins and posed for 30 or 40 more photos.  We got back on the bikes and rode to the Lotus Mahal, which was surrounded by a 25 foot high stone wall punctuated with massive guard towers.  Next to the Lotus Mahal were the gigantic elephant stables that once housed the royal elephants

The Lotus Mahal
Some of the architecture at Hampi is completely different from most of what we've seen in India.  The Lotus Mahal and the Queen's bath are more delicate looking buildings, with floral knotwork designs in the plaster and moorish style, arched and pointy windows and doorways.  All the columns and hallways were symmetrically designed and created beautiful patterns from every viewing angle.  The exterior of these buildings was a faded, powdery peachy colored plaster that looked especially pretty in the sunlight against the blue sky.  The elephant stable was a massive building with eleven elephant-size stables, each with a different domed rooftop and decorated ceiling, and moorish doorways between the stables.  

The stone chariot
After a quick stop at the underground temple, we rode to the Vitalla Temple.  Even though we were bordering on being “templed out,” this temple was worth the visit.  Located in the courtyard was a massive, stone chariot that used to be mobile despite the fact that the axles and wheels are made out of stone as well.  In some places, the carving on the temples was remarkably intact and crisp.  Especially impressive were the sets of slender pillars that were carved out of a single piece of stone.  Some of the pillars in the temple are musical and will generate a tone if tapped (yes, it's a World Heritage site, but no, they weren't cordoned off, so we tapped on them to see if it worked, and yes, it does).  

After all this architectural wonder, we were in temple overload and decided to ride back into Hospet to buy a bottle of something celebratory (“of what?” you ask.  Um, Christmas?).  Since Hampi is a temple town, alcohol sales are banned, so Hospet is the nearest den of bad habits.  We rode the eight miles back, found a liquor store just down from the upholstery shop, so Colin went to ask about getting our seats redone while I went to buy some (not) hooch.  When I returned, Colin said the upholsterer would gussy up our seats the next morning while we wait for 350 rupees per seat (about 7 USD each).  I opened my mouth to haggle on the price, but when I realized how little it actually was, I quickly shut my mouth.  For dinner, we went back to our favorite rooftop restaurant for Christmas dinner.  Colin had his new traditional holiday dinner of falafel, hummus, pita, and chips.  Some of you may recall that two years ago we arrived in Bangkok late on Christmas night after a looong bus ride from Phnom Penh, and that was what we found for dinner that night too.  I, however, was a little skeptical of Indian falafel for some reason, so I had paneer masala and rice.  Both of our meals were surprisingly delicious.  After a nightcap of Diet Coke and Indian whiskey, we called it a night. 

Our butts' savior
The following morning we rode to Hospet after breakfast to have our seats redone.  With all the miles, jolts, and fat asses on them, the foam seems to have lost some of its liveliness.  We arrived at the upholsterer by the designated time of 10:30, removed the seats, and tried to convey what we wanted done.  The man spoke quite a bit of English, but not enough to get the full extent of what was needed, so he called over another man who spoke a bit more English.  The plan we arrived at was to add between two and three inches of foam to the seats (we initially thought he'd take apart our stock seats) and make new covers.  He found two pieces of lightly used foam that were rear seat pads from a different bike in their previous lives and proceeded to shape and then sculpt them to fit our bikes.  He glued the foam to the top of our stock seat covers and then stitched two new, much taller seat covers to fit.  He did a fine job, and the seat is very much more comfortable, but you know what a shoe with a lift on it looks like?  That's our bike seats.  Colin says it's a little Frankenstein-y.  My bike is especially so, since in addition to the new seats, Colin also took my rear rack to a welder to be fixed again, and it hopefully will hold this time.  Between the scrapes, rough welds, and “lift” seat, all I need is a zipper neck to be truly Frankenstein (wait, would that make Colin's bike, the bride of Frankenstein?).


Since we'd had enough big city fun for a few days, we moved on to Belur the next morning.  It's a small town about 100 miles north of Mysore that is famous for its 11th century Hoysala temple.  The ride from Mysore was easy, on solid pavement with not too much traffic.   The weather was cool and sunny, and passed golden fields of rice that was ready for harvest that stretched on for miles.   
We made it to Belur early in the afternoon and checked into our hotel.  The man at reception asked how many days we were staying, and I said, two, since we wanted to see the temples in Belur today and in the nearby city of Halebid tomorrow as well.  He checked their reservation system and came back to say we could only stay one night because the next night they were full.  Too bad, because this was the nicest hotel we've stayed in in India.  The rooms were recently redone and had shiny, new everything, working light fixtures, fan, no peeling paint or mildew to be found anywhere, thick, fluffy towels, and new bed linens, and all of it for the equivalent of 16 bucks.   

Since we could only stay one night, we hurried out to see the Channakeshava Temple, which was right down the street.  It was built in the 11th century by the Hoysalas to celebrate their defeat of the Cholas, and it's one of the best in this style.  The carvings were elaborately detailed (and anatomically correct in many cases) and very fluid compared to other styles we've seen, and they remain in remarkably good condition, considering their age.  Also at the temple were many, many groups of school children, and we stopped for the requisite group photos several times (fortunately for us, there were a few other white tourists there who took some of the pressure off us!). 

Temple artwork
Once we'd made our way through the temple grounds, we walked back into town and found some lunch.  We stopped in a place that was packed with locals, all eating thalis or chapati with curry.  While we sat in our booth, waiting for our food, I made a new best friend.  Her name is Devadara, she looks to be about 3-4 years old, and looks lovely in her purple dress.  She moved from her seat in the booth directly behind me and sat next to me.  I said hello and asked her name, and she said, “Devadara,” and just stared at me.  I introduced myself, and she stared at me.  I asked how old she is, and she stared at me.  I offered her my hat, which did not impress her.  I put Colin's hat on her head, which she tossed on the floor.  I kept talking, and she kept staring.  It was really hilarious, and she was stinking cute.  When I got up to wash my hands before eating, her mother apparently retrieved her (and Colin said Devadara was not at all happy about it).  Before they left, her mother brought Devadara to say goodbye, so we shook hands, and she stared at me.  We ate our thali lunch (vegetables, rice, and papadam) and then went back to the hotel to make some plans for our next move. 

Mysore (butt)

Tea covered hills
Since all good things must come to an end, we left Ooty for Mysore the following morning.  Ooty is one of the most comfortable places in India to me.  The weather is great, it's not too big, there isn't nearly as much traffic, and it's quiet (for India).  I could move here.  When Colin and I sat at the Botanical Gardens, we discussed the possibility of moving someplace like this and opening our dream business.  But, we must keep moving.  So, on to Mysore we went.  

Western Ghats
The ride was even more beautiful, with very little traffic.  We rode through huge cedar forests, past terraced tea plantations, groves of huge bamboo (I thought of a new way to die in India that's not traffic related- being skewered by a loose piece of bamboo falling from the sky.  No really, there were huge pieces dangling overhead, caught only by friction amongst the branches, ready to drop in a gust of wind).  The road also passed through two tiger preserves, but alas, we saw no tigers, only spotted deer, elephants, many birds, and a mongoose.  But it was a pretty ride, and we made it to Mysore by mid-afternoon, found a nice room (warmer here, so no heat needed) and walked to the main bazaar. 

The bazaar (market) was, by far, the nicest one I've been to, anywhere.  The aisles of shops in the main building were filled with fresh produce of all sorts, baskets of colorful, aromatic flowers, people making floral garland offerings, and assorted small housewares.  We slowly made our way through the building, stopping to look and sniff as we moved along, and bought a delicious watermelon to snack on later.  Since neither of us was particularly interested in hunting for dinner, we opted to order room service from the hotel's restaurant.  As usual, we ordered too much food, ate what we could, and then surfed the internet on the complimentary wifi the manager set up for us!

Austin modified for the rails
The next morning, we walked a couple miles to the Railway Museum.  It's next to the central station and has a bunch of steam engines, of different rail gauges, dating from the 1800s through to the 1950s.  They also had a 19th century crane car that was used to offload cars, an old Austin that was modified to run on the tracks, and various and sundry other rail-related brickabrac.   

It's good to be the Maharani
The most impressive car by far was the Maharani's Saloon, which belonged to the wife of the Maharaja.  It was outfitted in the late 1800s for her personal travels, in dark wood with carpets, curtains, ornate light fixtures, with a beautiful bed, writing desk, dressing table, and bath.  Included in the exhibit were the cars for her cook and staff.  They weren't nearly so grand, but it was interesting to see the kitchen with a big cast iron stove and clamps to hold the pots and the separate room with all the gigantic cooking pots.  Since we had food on our minds after looking at the kitchen car, we walked back via the market and each had a vegetarian thali lunch.

The front of the Palace
The big thing to do in Mysore is tour the Palace, so that's where we headed after lunch.  The Mysore Palace was built in the early 20th century to replace the previous one that burned to the ground.  It's an amazingly grand, sprawling building, with manicured lawns and gardens surrounding it.  It's unfortunate that cameras are forbidden inside the building, because some of it was unbelievable.  The marriage hall had a domed stained glass ceiling in a peacock theme, with intricate mosaic tiled floors, huge columns, and murals all around the perimeter depicting scenes of royal festivals.  All the doors were heavily carved wood (I don't think there was an undecorated spot on any of them) throughout the building, and in some rooms, the floors and archways were marble inlaid with colored stone floral motifs.  Every surface in the palace was decorated in some manner.  It was all pretty over the top, but impressive, nonetheless.

Mysore seems to be more of a tourist destination than many places we've been in India, and as a result, has more scams aimed at gullible tourists.  We've read about them, seen the touts in action, and been the targets ourselves in other parts of the world.  But Mysore was the first place we've encountered blatant scams in India, and today we saw two.  #1 As we walked to the Railway Museum, we noticed a man trying to match our pace, to “casually” run into us.  We've seen this plenty of times (it makes us change our pace, walk in another direction, stop, whatever it takes to make the other person do something really obvious) and were ready for the guy when he caught us.  Sure enough, he began a casual conversation, asking where we were from, and where we were going today.  When we said the Railway Museum, he shook his head and said it was much too far to walk.  We assured him it was a nice morning and we could do it, and he then said the museum was actually closed.  We both laughed and continued walking, and the man stopped smiling and went the other way.  #2 When we were walking from the market back to the hotel, an autorickshaw pulled to the curb next to us, and a young man hurriedly jumped out to talk to us.  He seemed very excited by our presence and also wanted to know if we'd been to the market.  We said yes, and he told us that if we liked that market, he would take us to a “special, government-sponsored” market where they sold handmade incense and other handicrafts that was “only open today.”  I actually guffawed when he said this, because we heard exactly the same thing, time and time again, in Indonesia, but there, they were batik stores.  We kept walking, and he got back in the autorickshaw and rode away to look for a more gullible chump. 

Rooty, Tooty, Fresh and Fruity Ooty

Ooty is a WONDERFUL place.  It's one of the hill stations where the colonial British, unaccustomed to the climate, would traditionally go to get out of the heat.  The air is clear, the trees are pine and cedar, and the plantations grow tea.  The weather is much cooler during the daytime, and at night, you can actually see your breath.  The YWCA complex is a collection of old, wood, elongated “cottages,” some with dorms, some housing just a few rooms, spaced throughout hillside gardens.   Our room was huge, with a separate dressing room between the bedroom and bathroom.  The walls were white, the floor was tiled in terra cotta, and the bed linens and curtains were blue and white checked.  It was a lovely room, but there's no heat(MAN, that floor gets COLD).  On the rate card at reception are prices for extra blankets (5 rupees or 10 cents each) and hot water bottles.  We decided that an extra couple of blankets might not be a bad idea.  When bedtime rolled around and we tried to get under the covers, we realized that there was quite a pile of blankets on the bed already- two heavy wool blankets, two fleece blankets, a sheet, and the bedspread.  Colin described being under the load as feeling like sleeping under the lead blanket at the dentist's office.  I practically dislocated my shoulder trying to pull back the covers to climb in, and once under the covers, it felt like there was another person flopped over top of us.  But, it was toasty warm, and we both slept like babies.

Colin is happy to find that he still has the hair on his crown
We spent two and a half days in Ooty.  Our first full day, we walked into town to find some breakfast and motor oil, since the plan for the day was to do some much-needed bike maintenance.  We found both-really good, hot milk coffee and fresh buttered rolls for breakfast, plus a cupcake for breakfast-dessert (mmmm, tutti frutti cake in Ooty! Has a nice ring to it) and plain, old, 20W50 for the bikes and walked back up the hill to work on the bikes.  It was a beautiful, clear, and crisp day, perfect to be outside working, which was good, because the maintenance took nearly all day.  We changed both rear tires, the oil, the sparkplugs, the jets in the carburetors, fixed Colin's brake lever with a rock and a hammer (if I had a hammer, I'd hammer in the morning), and the tube in Colin's front tire.  All of it went relatively smoothly, except that the replacement jets were gunked up with rubber band snot (it apparently disintegrated in the heat or from chemicals, I don't know) and took some soaking in gasoline to clean.  When we finally finished and picked up the tools, the sun was setting.  We got ourselves cleaned up and walked back down the hill into town for some dinner.

The next day, we headed to the Botanical Gardens for a stroll.  These gardens are far superior to the one in Pondy, actually having labels on the plants and trees, and gardeners tending the gardens!  We spent several hours walking, looking at the plants, sitting on a park bench drinking really good coffee, and posing for many more photos. 

Oopsie(s) on the way to Ooty

Colin is in red italics again

Last night's sleep was particularly poor due to the apparently never ending supply of mosquitoes.  Before we went to bed, we killed at least 40 mosquitoes between us, and yet, somewhere in the room, there must have been a tiny, mosquito clown car, because they just kept coming.  Since the room only came with a wool blanket and it certainly wasn't that cold, we slept inside our silk sleepsacks, and I tried in vain all night to keep my head inside the sleepsack.

We hit the road by 8:30 for the hundred or so miles left to Ooty.  The first 10 miles or so were through the extended urban area.  About 6 miles into the ride, the law of averages and bad drivers caught up with Re.  While riding through a commercial area, I passed an autorickshaw parked on the left side of the road and saw in my peripheral vision another motorbike rider shooting blindly out of a side street into oncoming traffic, as is pretty standard here.  Unfortunately the oncoming traffic was Re.  No, nononononononononono.  I glanced in my rearview mirror in time to see Re T-bone this fine gentleman.  She was able to get on the brakes momentarily, and fortunately we weren't traveling fast at the time, but she did center punch the other bike.  When I spun around, I saw both bikes in the road and a group of people helping both riders up.  When I reached the scene, Re and her bike were upright, and Re was fine, just pissed.  The assembled crowd helped us get her bike to the side of the road, so the now backing up traffic could go.  Apparently the other rider decided not to stick around for the ass-kicking Re was ready to dole out, as he had left the scene.  Amazingly, a quick once over of Re's bike revealed no new damage! 

This is the first real collision I've been involved in, with car or bike, in twenty some years.  When I saw the guy pull into the road, stop, and I swear, smile at me, I had nowhere to go, with traffic on both sides.  I hit both brakes as hard and fast as I could and tried my best to stop in time, but no such luck. I know that every action is met with an equal and opposite reaction, and based on the lack of damage to either party or equipment involved, I must have slowed down a lot.  When I hit him, we must have been perpendicular to each other, and all I felt was a reverberating BROING! through my front tire and and then my wrists before the bike fell over on the left side.  I yelled to the guy to see if he was okay, and he was still smiling weakly as some people helped him move his bike.  I was seriously shaken and peeved that on this day, the day I had determined would be the day that I stayed “in the moment” throughout my ride, I would now spend worrying about whether he was okay, I would be okay, the bike was okay, and what would happen around the next bend.  I have a lot of trouble trying to clear my brain of all the noise (figurative and literal), and my current goal is to increase the length of time that I can NOT think about the past, the future, and random garbage that does nothing but clutter my head to more than a nanosecond.  The universe did seem to be conspiring against me, as maybe fifteen minutes later, I almost ran into another motorbike when the rider pulled out from the side of the road and tried to move to the right in front of me without signaling.  Aaarrrfggghh! 

From its time on its side, Re's bike had flooded and took a bit to start, but we were back underway.  The roads today were under construction and will eventually be four-lane highway, but for now, they are stretches of paved road connected by dirt and rock.  In one particularly bad pothole that I missed avoiding, I re-bent my rear brake lever all the way back to the footpeg again and also dinged the corner of my chain case to the point where it was dragging on the chain.  After fixing the chain case (the rear brake lever will have to wait) we again continued towards Ooty.  As we rode, large mountains appeared through the haze and got closer and closer, until we reached them.  The final thirty-five miles to Ooty was a serpentine road that rose from 1600 feet to 7500 feet.  Unfortunately, Ooty is a popular place to visit, and so this thirty-five miles was a near-continuous conga line of slow buses and trucks.  We joined our Indian two-wheeled brethren in making blind, stupid overtaking manoeuvers, until I nearly paid the price.  On one steep section, I very optimistically tried to overtake a bus and made it about halfway alongside, when a line of small trucks came around the corner towards me.  Unable to complete the pass, I attempted to slow down and get in behind the bus, but was unable to before the trucks arrived.  The roads here are very narrow and I found my left mirror scraping on the side of the bus while two of the trucks clipped my right mirror as they passed.  Considering that our mirrors only extend about an inch beyond our handlebars, that was really way too #!@$!' close.  Part of the problem is that the bikes are not enjoying the altitude and are running very poorly, and the other part is that there is a dumbass riding this bike.

We eventually made it to Ooty (alive) and found the YWCA (whoever would have thought!), where we are staying overnight.  The novel thing about Ooty is the temperature.  When we arrived around 1:30 pm, it was only about 70 degrees.  After unpacking the bikes and getting situated, we walked into town for a late lunch at a restaurant that serves meat other than chicken.  I dined on some lovely lamb sheesh kebabs while Re had the tandoori chicken.  After picking up some snacks for later, we made our way back to the room and spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and being thankful to still be alive. 

From Mamallapuram to Erode (yes, that's its name, don't wear it out)

Me with some of our rainy weather friends
The following is largely Colin's ride report since I have been taking a break from writing.  I've added my commentary, but his is again in italics and red type.

The power went out overnight, so no AC and no fan made for a crappy night's sleep.  The power outage likely was due to the huge rainstorms and high wind that went on for most of the night.  When the sun came up, it was still raining.  Since the ride to Vellore was only a hundred miles or so, we decided to give the weather until 9:30 to sort itself out.  The rain stopped during breakfast, so we headed back to the room and loaded the bikes.  We questioned the wisdom of heading out from such a nice place into potentially bad weather but decided to go for it anyway.  While it was not raining when we pulled out of the hotel, it was very dark in every direction, and the cloud deck was solid as far as we could see.  Approximately two miles down the road, it started raining again.  The rain continued on and off (mostly on) for the entire trip, but it did stop once we reached the outskirts of Vellore.  Today's ride was really a tale of two different rides.  The first 50 miles was made up of intermittent, very heavy rain and some of the worst road, if not the worst road, in India.  It took us three hours to make the first 30 miles.  

Typical road conditions, only wetter
During some especially heavy rain, we pulled off the road and under the awning of a small business, where some people were standing, watching the rain, and I assume, waiting for it to stop.  When we pulled in, they all crowded around us and looked over the bikes.  No one spoke more that a couple words of English, but we could tell by their gestures that they wanted to take photos with us.  Nobody in the crowd had a camera, so we used ours, taking photos of Colin surrounded by the men, then me with the men, then with the men and the kids.  I motioned for the women in the group to join in for picture time, but they smiled and refused.  When they were satisfied with the photos, they wanted copies, but without a printer (and without an email address for anyone in the group), we had no way to oblige.  After picture time, more men wandered under the awning to look at the bikes.  One of them was a l0cal mechanic who spoke English well enough to ask specific questions about the bikes, our gear, and our trip.  After about twenty minutes or so, the rain lightened and we said our goodbyes.

For some reason, people here absolutely LOVE to have their photo taken with non-Indians.  Just about everywhere we go, people stop us to ask if we will pose for a picture with them.   And one usually turns into forty-seven or so more.  And it's not just Colin or me, it's both of us, and men, women, and children stop us.   We have discussed making a sign, “picture with a white person, 5 rupees.”  We wouldn't be greedy, just 5 rupees per photo.  There have been days when we could have easily paid for our lunch if only we had a sign!  I asked a local man one time, why?  He said it's just a novelty to people since in much of India, they don't see caucasians often at all.  It's so funny to me that it is acceptable here, when at home, you'd never even think about asking someone to pose for a photo just because he/she was Indian.

The last 50 miles were on 4-lane divided highway with excellent paving and light traffic (and only the occasional rain shower).  Vellore is a strange town.  It's main business is medicine.  The Christian Medical College Hospital and Vellore Fort dominate the city, but fortunately, we were here for the latter.  Our hotel was directly across the street from the hospital, and the streets were filled with patients and their families.  We wandered around the main street and a few back streets, taking in the sights, when we heard drums and firecrackers coming around the corner.  Being a fan of loud noises, we headed toward their source.  We found a procession of drummers and marchers pulling a large, flower covered float, and periodically someone would light a string of firecrackers.  Everyone seemed to be having a grand time.  As the procession passed, the flower covered float made its way in front of us and it was then we noticed the dead man riding in the float.
the Vellore Fort
We left the AC and fan on overnight in order to dry out our boots and gloves, and we were happy to see that they were nearly dry when we got up.  Since we got into Vellore late yesterday, we decided to visit Fort Vellore this morning before riding towards Ooty.  After having some fruit, we walked down to the fort and toured the grounds.  The fort is grandest from the exterior, where the high walls and wide moat are an impressive sight.  The buildings in the interior of the fort have, on the other hand, seen better days.  Like much of colonial-era India, they are returning to nature.  The highlight of the fort was the beautiful Hindu temple within.  The Jalakanteshwara Temple was built in the mid-1500s and is a spectacular example of stone carving.  The wedding hall in particular is made up of a large number of columns, all intricately carved from floor to ceiling.  Another site checked off the list, and we headed back to the hotel.  On the way, we stopped for a breakfast of masala dosa and coffee.  We loaded up the bikes and hit the road by 11:30 am.  The first 120 miles or so was easy riding, and we made good time.  Once again, it was four lane goodness through farmland and rivers, with hazy mountains in the distance.  Since Ooty was nearly 300 miles from Vellore, we knew we would not make it in one day and instead, decided to head for Erode for the night.  My GPS stubbornly insisted that we take the long way, but the sign on the roadside promised that if we turned right off of our four-lane goodness, it would save nearly 20 miles.  While Re and I stopped to discuss our options, a taxi driver assured us that the shortcut was the way to go.  Shortcut, my ass.  Shortly after we turned right, the road fell apart.  The road surface alternated between shitty and nonexistent and our average speed plummeted.  This road also went through dozens of small towns, all with their own set of speedbumps.  Eventually we rode past the nuclear plant (?) and made it to Erode by about 5:30 pm.  Erode wasn't listed in our guidebook, but a quick check of the GPS found a cluster of hotels listed near the bus station.  Re shortly found a decent room for cheap money, but we later discovered that the room was filled with mosquitoes.  We found dinner at an outdoor restaurant set in a nice garden before heading back to the room to make war with the mosquitoes. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Fishermen in Mamallapuram
The next morning we moved on to Mamallapuram, which is a small, coastal city south of Chennai that is known mainly for its temples. Colin added a congested nose and itchy face (hopefully just an allergy attack?) to his list of symptoms yesterday and had same congestion with drainage and felt vaguely feverish when he woke up. While I checked over the bikes, I grabbed the thermometer from the first aid kit and found that my temperature was normal. Time to suck it up and ride. The first ten miles or so leaving Pondy were tough- lots of broken pavement and heavy traffic. Once clear of Pondy, the road turned beautiful, and traffic dwindled to a trickle. Another pretty ride through the agricultural countryside. The new feature today was the large number of oxcarts plying the roads. Since we left Pondy at 9:00 am, we made it to Mal by 11:00, and were checked into a room by noon. While we were unloading the bikes, I decided to check my temp again, and my fever had arrived. While my temperature was only a little high, I did not feel well. I did feel well enough, however, to enjoy a lovely lunch of pasta with cream sauce and chicken. At least with whatever I have now, I still have an appetite. After lunch, I returned to the room for a three hour nap, while Re went sightseeing. While Colin slept, I wandered the quiet streets of town, exciting the shopkeepers by the prospect of a sale.  According to people in several of the cities we've visited, it's been a very slow tourist season.  Not being in the market for souvenirs, I unfortunately couldn't oblige them.  Instead, I headed for the beach, which is a working beach filled with small fishing boats, and watched them bundle their nets for the day.  The weather was gorgeous- a salty breeze and warm sunshine, and I thoroughly enjoyed winding my way between the boats and the cows who were soaking up some rays on the beach.  She woke me up when she returned, and I felt remarkably better. Not great, but good enough to get another steak for dinner.

Two of the Five Rathas
Colin felt even better after a decent night of sleep, so we decided to take in the temple sights after breakfast. We stopped in at a cafe just down the street (curiously called Freshly N Hot?!?) for croissants, fruit salad, and coffee (apparently the French were here as well). Our first stop was the Five Rathas, a group of five shrines that were hidden in the sand until rediscovered and excavated by the British 200 years ago. Though the Rathas were impressive in that each one was carved from a single piece of stone, we were a little underwhelmed by the small size of the site. From here we rode a short distance to a group of mandapams situated on Mal's main hill. The hike through the rocks led to several temples carved out of the hillside. 

Part of Arjuna's Penance
We then rode the bikes down to see Arjuna's Penance and Krishna's Butterball (this is the BEST name of any site so far). Arjuna's Penance is an enormous relief carving on the face of a stone temple and was the highlight of the temples in Mal. It's supposed to represent an arduous feat he undertook in exchange for bounty from the gods and has really beautiful carvings of various animals and mythical creatures, from cats to elephants and nagas (serpent creatures) in a crevasse that used to have water flowing through it. Krishna's Butterball is just a giant rock that appears to be improbably balanced. I got the requisite photo of Colin holding up the rock.
The saddest carnival ride, ever.
Having seen the sights on the south side of town, we returned to the hotel, where we dropped off the bikes and found some lunch. After lunch we walked down to the beach and made our way to the Shore Temple. This temple was again, small, but magnificently carved, and with an ocean view to boot. We continued south along the beach and found ourselves at a funny little beach carnival. It consisted mainly of a couple of “pop the balloon with a BB gun” stands and the saddest kiddie rides we've ever seen. While we may not have been impressed, lots of local people seemed to be having a pretty good time.  

Nandis lining the wall at the Shore Temple
After admiring the temples, Colin went back to our hotel room and I returned by way of a beauty store that had hair colors other that six shades of brown (black-brown, brown-black, dark brown, light brown, golden brown, red brown) in the window. They had golden blonde, copper blonde, and one intriguingly called, lighter. I opted for a golden blonde, which was made in Thailand, rather than the one made in India, since there seemed to be more light-haired people in Thailand than I've seen in India. I returned to the room, mixed the bottles in a cup, and applied the concoction to my head with fingers crossed. I checked after twenty minutes but the roots still looked dark, so I waited another ten (as directed per the packaging). After thirty minutes, the color resembled Ronald McDonald red, but once I rinsed, it toned down to a strawberry blonde (more the color of Lilu's hair in the movie, The Fifth Element). Not bad, not bad at all, just not what I expected. Once we'd finished admiring my new 'do, we went out to dinner at a nice French restaurant. We spent one more day just hanging out in “Mal,” working on ride reports, eating western food, and finding a couple of paperback novels to enjoy.

Pondy (Puducherry)

Waterfront busker on a tightrope in Pondy
The next morning we got on the road toward Puducherry (Pondy), which is formerly a French colonial area. The weather was hot and very humid, and the traffic was heavy. Colin and I simultaneously had our lives flash before our eyes as we were both ridden off the road and into the mud by an oncoming bus passing a second bus (as this kind of event becomes more common, my sphincter recovery time shrinks. I believe it will be a nonevent in another month). Within about 30 miles of Pondy, the rear end of my bike developed a new wobble, so I pulled off the side of the road to have a look-see. Sure enough, I had a flat tire. Thankfully, I was right next to a weigh station with a semi-paved lot, so when Colin got back and I told him my latest woe, we pulled in and got to work. Under the watchful eyes of a rotating group of six to eight men, we removed the rear wheel, found the 1 inch long piece of nail(?) through the center of the tread, removed the tire, and found that the tube had an approximately 2 inch long tear, making it unrepairable. At this sight, the crowd groaned but cheered up when we produced a new tube from our spares kit. Re found an empty whiskey bottle in the ditch in which she mixed some water and liquid soap we had for tire lube, greatly impressing the crowd. We quickly put the rear wheel back together, and after a mere 270 strokes of the air pump, we were back on the road. We finally made it to Pondy at around 3:00, at which time Re disappeared in search of a room. While she was gone, I compared rides with a local autorickshaw driver who spoke excellent English, and he even bought me a cup of tea while we talked. Re eventually returned and we headed to our new digs for the night, which turned out to be right on the water in a very nice little guesthouse. I was surprised by the price when I saw the room, but then realized that it was discounted due to its peculiar non-ensuite bathroom setup. The room had its own bathroom, but it was located across the lobby, behind the reception desk. The very best thing about Pondy is that it was formerly occupied by the French and is technically not part of Tamil Nadu. This means that there is excellent western food and that beer is very cheap and easy to find. After a walk along the promenade, Re and I went to a lovely French restaurant for some really excellent steaks, mashed potatoes, and the coldest Kingfishers we've had in India. After briefly considering getting another steak for dessert, we instead found some ice cream along the promenade and grabbed a couple more beers before turning in for the night.

Pretty church in Pondy
We spent the next day meandering the streets of Pondy, strolling through the Sunday market area (where we finally located a replacement funnel, since the spout on ours kept getting shorter from rubbing on Colin's rear wheel), walking along the promenade on the waterfront, and enjoying the colonial era buildings in the French quarter of the city. We found the local botanical garden, which has fallen into a rather dismal state. I like botanical gardens. They are beautiful, smell nice, usually have someplace to sit in the shade, and are educational to boot. This one, however, had very few signs on the trees or plants, was largely untended and overgrown, and was strewn with litter. But it did have an aquarium near the entrance, so we paid our entrance fee of 10 cents each and admired the fish in their tanks (the aquarium section of your average WalMart pet department would put this one to shame in both size and variety). 

Colin preparing to dig into his pizza
When lunchtime rolled around, we found a place that made wood-fired pizzas and ordered two of them. The crust was chewy, they had lots of cheese, and I saw them making the sauce from fresh tomatoes when we walked in. They were wonderful! Both Colin and I love Indian food and eat plenty of veg meals among other things, but it is hard to have basically the same thing to eat every day (we certainly don't at home). Thalis and curries taste great, but the texture of most dishes is very soft. I need to chew every now and then, so the pizzas and steaks satisfied that need handily. And for dinner that evening we crunched on salads at a place known for making them “hygienically.” It's been quite nice to have some different meal options here.

Hitting the wall

Brihadishwara Temple
Today's ride was a hard couple of hours. No more four-lane road, we found ourselves chugging through small towns, bouncing over speedbumps, and dodging homicidal buses for most of the 55 mile ride. Once we reached Thanjavur we made a beeline for our preferred hotel, which was supposed to have wifi and reasonable rates. Well, they had wifi, but the rate had nearly doubled, so the search continued. Out came the phone, and we called three other possibilities. At our second choice, we ran into a tiny, little parking guard with a whistle and a Napoleonic complex. When we pulled up in front of the hotel, he came out, blew his whistle, and pointed for us to park in another place. So, we moved to the other place, which was in front of a small eatery on the ground floor of the hotel. Here, another man came out of the eatery and pantomimed eating, pointing at our bikes and the restaurant. We shook our heads no, and he gestured for us to get the hell out of his parking lot. So, we rode the twenty feet back to the hotel parking lot, where the little dictator tried to shoo us away again. We pointed to ourselves and to the front of the hotel, and he finally got the clue. He then decided that instead of us staying where we were, we needed to snake our way up over a 6- inch high sidewalk at a 45-degree angle between cars, a power pole, and the building. Since Re was ahead, she went before I could stop her. The little dictator decided that blowing his whistle loudly and yelling would somehow ensure success. I had the very bad feeling that this was going to end in tears, but Re seemed confident that she could make it. But she didn't. When her rear tire slipped off the sidewalk and dropped the 6-inches back to the dirt, her bike lurched sideways toward the wall and in her attempt to save the bike from going over, she twisted the throttle. Oh no. The rear tire caught traction on the edge of the sidewalk and Re and her bike ended up hitting the wall of the hotel. The good news was that the little dictator stopped blowing his whistle and yelling and actually just walked away. After we extricated the bike, the damage assessment revealed a cracked mirror, cracked front fender, cracked turn signal lens, and a pissed off wife. I think the little dictator was wise to leave when he did, or he may have found that whistle wedged where the sun don't shine.

The noise level in India is putting some serious strain on my nerves. And I am very tired of people indicating where they want me to park by blowing whistles and throwing their arms around in the air. Although I have been riding for twelve years, my experience is extremely intermittent and really doesn't add up to that many miles, and I get really nervous about moving the bike in tight spaces. And I also have to remember that I can ignore the person ordering me to move someplace. Colin keeps reminding me that I am in charge of riding my bike, and if I am not comfortable with something I don't have to do it. This is something I need to continue to work on.
After all this, Re went into the hotel, only to find that they would not honor the rate they'd given us over the phone just ten minutes before. More “taxes.” On to choice number three, which was a few more rupees, but was very nice, except that while checking in, the rate suddenly jumped by nearly 6 USD. Even though Re asked several times if the original price included tax and was assured that yes it did, suddenly it did not include tax. So, back on the bikes and on to choice number four. Finally, we made it to a place where the price was what was quoted on the phone. The room was nice enough, but the AC did not work, so we changed rooms and headed out to repair what we could on Re's bike. After thoroughly cleaning the fender inside and out, we dipped into the toolkit for Superglue and Gorilla tape. We glued the cracked fender and backed the repair with Gorilla tape on the inside for good measure, and also glued the cracked turn signal lens. While we had the tools out, we also straightened the turn signal mount, but the cracked mirror is just gonna have to remain cracked. With that done, we went out to check email at an internet cafe and get some dinner. When we returned to the room, it was cooler in the hallway than it was in our room. To make matters worse, the man at reception spoke little English and we had a hard time explaining what the problem was. Eventually we changed to a third room in time for bed, where the AC was blissfully cool and went to sleep.

Nandi carved from a single piece of stone
Our plan for today was to see the sights that Thanjavur has to offer, so we walked the half mile to the Brihadishwara Temple and Fort. This temple is different in that the sandstone is natural rather than having every surface plastered and painted. Between the natural stone surfaces and the excellent carvings, it reminded us a bit of Angkor Wat. Also notable is the humongous statue of Nandi (Shiva's ride) that is carved from a single piece of rock and is nearly 20 feet long (that's a lot of hamburgers if they made hamburgers in India. I would like a hamburger.) (ME TOO! That is about the only thing I have craved in India is a big, juicy hamburger). This temple is also different from all we've seen so far in that the central tower (vimana) is the tallest structure, whereas, in all the others, the gopurams have been the tallest. Here the vimana is nearly 200 feet high.

disembodied legs on the palace wall
After the temple, we hoofed another half mile to the Thanjavur Royal Palace and Museums. The palace was once a grand place but has fallen into a state of decay. It is a huge complex of many different halls, some of which now house tiny “museums,” and a 7-story bell tower. The entire palace complex is crumbling. The grounds, and what must have been gardens, are overgrown, weed-filled messes. The walls are covered in graffiti, and the original painted ceilings and walls are exposed to the elements. It is supposed to be an important historical site, but nothing is being done to preserve it. 

Hall in the Palace
Within the palace are several separate “museums” which you pay extra to enter (only 2 – 5 Rupees each, plus a camera fee). These museums were truly the crappiest museums I have ever been to. One of them was in a dark hall which had no apparent light source other than the open door at the end. In order to look at the unlabled carved coconuts and old padlocks in the cases, I dug out the headlamp (and then put it away after I realized the contents of the cases really weren't worth the effort). Another museum was in a musty room at the top of a very dark set of stairs that housed a collection of porcelain figurines that were reminiscent of many a garage sale I have attended. We left the palace complex after climbing as high as we could in the belltower and stopped for lunch at a sweaty hole in the wall close to our hotel. 
This was a very basic, local restaurant that normally wouldn't have caught our eye, except that every time we walked by, virtually every seat was occupied no matter what time of day. While we stood outside looking in, the waiter gestured us inside and found us two seats at a common table. There were no menus, and apparently no one spoke English, but we ordered our lunch by pointing at other patrons meals. We were served some spicy (not too spicy) rice, curd rice, green stuff, onion raitha, and an egg and onion omelet and as quickly as we ate, our banana leaves were refilled with more yummy goodness. At the end of the meal, we went to the counter to pay, and the cost for two lunches was a total of 37 rupees (75 cents). We had a delicious, cheap lunch and our fellow patrons seemed tickled to have us there. After lunch, we wandered down the street and found a motorbike shop with tires that would fit our bikes. We bough two new rear tires, two tubes, two spark plugs, and the very nice shopkeeper threw in three keychains with his shop's logo (I assume, since they're printed in Tamil. Or maybe they say “my hovercraft is full of eels”).