Last we left you we had been destroyed by Delhi, were melting in Kochi, and overall had been a little battered and bruised by our first week of India.
Well, we really turned a corner this week and are happy to report that India has been wonderful and fascinating, however it's definitely the most challenging place we have ever traveled. When you can get through a whole day without going through overwhelming feelings of dread and/or frustration, it is very empowering!
Week two has been such a good week for us. The only thing still making things hard is the lack of internet and ability to keep in touch with our family and friends. We're not home sick, but it would definitely make things easier to be able to message people whenever we wanted. Ok enough with the griping...on with the adventures!
So we departed Kochi going south on the Kerala state bus. This was the first bus trip in India for us and we were a bit nervous, as things here are not so obvious, nor is there as much English as we thought there would be. We had our fingers crossed during our bus ride that our bus was actually heading to Alappuzha. Once there our plan was to sail the backwaters of Kerala.
Ok - so we've explained in a previous post that we like to take situations and attack them in a way where we 'hack' them (i.e. win!). This means we are always looking how to have a five star experience by paying one star prices. All while preserving maximum flexibility, of course.
Well the backwaters were definitely a win for us. Most tourists pay big bucks to cruise the backwaters in their very own private houseboat. Super duper cute, we should mention, and it certainly looked comfortable. But Vince found a way to cruise the backwaters for 9 rupees per person. We arrived in time to board a government run jetty (or ferry, as North Americans would call it), and we rode the backwaters with the locals (and a few tourists) for two and a half hours toward Kottayam, taking in the sights from the front of the boat. It was serene, quiet and beautiful, all for about 40 cents CAD. Wow...what a bargain!
We thought our boat would go all the way to Kottayam, but about 10 km outside of the town the boat had to dock as the channel was overgrown with crazy-dense vegetation, and dozens of ducks, totally blocking the route. Quack. Normally this would freak us out, but since we've been in India we've learned to grip the wheel a little less tightly, so we just let go and let India take us where it wanted to. We jumped off the boat, and, standing on mound of dirt between two ricefields we negotiated a reasonable fare with a rickshaw to take us into Kottayam town.
Our plan for Kottayam was simple. Arrive late, take it easy for the night, and prepare for our next adventure the next day: the Indian Railway System! Since we had just finished a long day of traveling, and knowing we were going to spend the next day on the train, we thought we'd go upscale a little and book a hotel with a restaurant and a rooftop pool to enjoy the city from above and relax and recharge. Well, India wins again. The hotel was not up to North American standards. The pool wasn't chlorinated (slimy) and the shower was cold. And to top it off the hotel was having a 'sale' where if you checked-in after 6 pm (we did) and checked out before 10 am (we would), the price would be less than half of the regular rate. However, not for us. We booked online :(. Honourable mention goes out to the food at the restaurant...it was fantastic.
We woke up refreshed and ready to ride the train. Our plan was to go north to Coimbatore.
To get to Coimbatore, we took a 5 hour regular train ride, where we met the cutest Indian couple who informed us theirs was a "love marriage", and they humored us as Steph entertained them with Britney, Gaga and Katy (they only knew Justin Bieber!).
It was great fun but there was not a lot of actual conversation as English was limited. We did drink a lot of nice tea, however...
By now you're probably asking yourself where are these places and what's so important that we have to jump on buses, boats, rickshaws and trains all in a 24 hour time frame. What's the rush?
Well Vince caught wind of this steam-driven 'toy train', called the Blue Mountain Express, that runs on old vintage narrow tracks up to a hill station called "Ooty".
The train is one of three similar steam locomotives that still run in India, and all are famous. To climb the steep tracks, this one uses a rack and pinion gear system to engage the track, and with that it pulses its way uphill through some of the most beautiful country you have ever seen.
So we made getting on this train the prime focus of the rest of our time in south India. We were ready to hack this legend and make Luciani history no matter what!
But alas, this goal would have to be achieved in stages.
You see, the Blue Mountain Express train is tricky one to catch as it starts in a place called Mettapulam (50 km north of where we we'd be staying, in Coimbatore), only runs once per day, at 7 a.m., and all reservable seats are sold out months in advance. Great...
However, upon arriving in Coimbatore we were told that 'general' tickets go on sale every morning when the ticket booth opens, so if we lined up before it opened, and smiled nicely at the station master, he might just grant you a golden ticket. It was a shot in the dark, literally, because we woke up at 4 a.m. to take a taxi up to the train station!
It worked! At around 5:40 am the mustachioed station master gave us (and a few other blinky tourists) the nod, and we were able to buy general tickets for 10 rupees each. We were then packed into the train like cattle. In stark contrast, the taxi ride was 1000 rupees, but who cares, we were in!
We could not believe how it all came together. We were on our way to Ooty on the famous Blue Mountain Express. This train line was even featured in a BBC special, one very excited Brit told us on the way up. It was truly magical and worth every effort. The cameras were alive the whole ride, and other than Vince taking a quick twenty minute involuntary nap (4 a.m. remember), for several hours (at an average of 10 km/h), our faces were glued to the windows admiring the 'fairytale-like' surroundings, above and below. It was spectacular.
We rolled into Ooty and scheduled ourselves for four days in the area to take it easy, enjoy the temperate climate, and hike around to get some much needed exercise. And it was such a relief from Kerala's blanket heat.
This is when the corner got turned and our frustration for this country flipped to awe. We booted around Ooty, walked in the streets freely, and on one day we summited one of the major hills. Ooty is a major tourist attraction for the area, and we can see why.
We stayed in town for a few nights, and for our last night we splurged and stayed at this crazy terraced hillside resort that had incredible views (and a very committed Ayurvedic masseuse). Everything in Ooty was amazing and we would highly recommend a visit to this hard to reach place.
For our plan moving on, Vince had read that you could stay overnight in a lodge in the middle of the nearby Madumalai Wildlife Sanctuary (only 2 hours by bus from Ooty, and almost exactly halfway to Mysore, our next destination).
It is something westerners rarely do but really should. To book it we just walked into the Tamil Nadu's forest ranger's office in Ooty, got terrific service and advice, and paid our 750 rupees ($14 CAD) for one of the four lodges near the park main gate, right on the banks of the main river going through Madumalai.
Well, what we thought would be just an interesting stopover to break-up the ride to Mysore left us totally surprised.
The amount and diversity of wildlife we saw in just a few hours of arriving was unbelievable. We felt like we were living in a zoo. Our welcoming committee consisted of monkeys (everywhere), several deer drinking and an elephant bathing in the river across the road from us, and the odd wild boar roaming around (generally in strange places - including between us and the dining hall..!). We even took a safari deeper into the park . Our vehicle was approached by a large family of elephants, and Vince 'spotted' a leopard (in fact, Vince was the first on the bus to see it but he yelled 'cheetah, cheetah, cheetah!' - ah well, it still worked -- the bus stopped ;).
After the one night (which could have easily been two), we woke up in the forest, walked back to the main road, grabbed a chai and water at the 'canteen', and we caught the next bus to Mysore.
After three days in Mysore, and one afternoon in Bangalore, we will be flying to Varanasi. We're looking forward to it all and curious to see if all the stories of Varanasi are true...we'll let you know!