Ross and Chris had read about a beautiful train ride aboard a ‘toy steam train’ to the hill stations of Ooty, and had been trying to book tickets for the ride for several days. All the advance tickets were sold, so our only option was to try and buy tatkal tickets, which are released at 10:00 am the day before departure of the train. That meant that before we hopped on our train from Kochi to Combatore they had to run down to a travel agent they spoke with the day before to try and snatch three tickets as soon as they went on sale. Unfortunately, they forgot that it is AC tickets that go on sale at 10:00 am, while non-AC tickets don’t go on sale until 11:00. Our train out of Kochi was on the mainland of Ernakulam, and left at 11:55 am. We opted to hire a tuktuk to take us to the train station after hopefully obtaining tickets. I sat in the tuktuk while the boys organized the tickets, anxiously looking at my watch as the minutes rolled by. Finally, at 11:10 am they ran out of the agent and we took off at top speed to the train station. I questioned if they were successful with the tickets and they said that they wouldn’t know until later when the agent emailed them as there was a problem with the system. Suddenly, the tuktuk driver stopped at a ferry terminal and said it would be quickest if we took the ferry to the mainland and drove the remaining way as with traffic it could be dodgy to make our train. We were more than concerned as it was 11:20 am and the ferry wasn’t boarding yet. He promised us he could get us there in time and all we could do is have faith. The ferry docked on the other side and he took off at breakneck speed, navigating the roads like an expert. We made it to the train station at 11:52 am, throwing a generous tip his way as we raced towards our train. Thankfully it was delayed 15 minutes and we had time to grab a quick snack before boarding. Once in Coimbatore, we had time for a quick meal before boarding our last train for the day to Mettupalayam, which is where the toy train departs from. We made it to our hotel in a torrential downpour, eager to check our email, only to find the whole town does not have Internet. Luckily, a nice young guy turned on his hotspot for Chris to check to see if we had tickets for the next day or not. Unfortunately, the computer system let us down and the very apologetic travel agent informed us we were without tickets. Luckily, we were only out $3 bucks total. The last remaining option was the station master would release 30 more tickets at 5:30 am. The boys agreed they would go early and get the tickets. They waited ages the next morning while the station master exerted his authority, before finally securing 3 tickets for us. We grabbed quick showers before heading back to the station. We found seats in the general section carriage on the left side of the train, the best seats for the views. We all laughed about what an effort it was to get tickets, but were happy it paid off. We waited ages on the train, the departure time of 7:00 am came and went and there was still no signs of movement. Finally, we were informed there was a landslide and the train would not be able to depart. All we could do was burst out laughing despite ourselves. We disembarked the train, shaking our heads at the doomed journey that wasn’t to be. We made our way to the bus station and quickly hopped on a bus that would instead take us to Ooty. After a 45 minute breakfast stop shortly after we hopped on, we climbed our way slowly to the hillstation town of Ooty, rewarded with beautiful views along the way.
Once in Ooty we tried to arrange accommodation in the nearby Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, but were met by the most unhelpful receptionist at the office of the park and were forced to try and figure out another alternative. We headed to a barbecue restaurant for lunch, which wasn’t open but luckily let us go in and sit down until they opened. The boys went to a nearby travel agent and arranged a driver to take us around Ooty for the day, and drop us at the national park, which they were confident would have a place for us to sleep. We had a massive lunch, splitting their specialty platter which easily could have fed 5 people. We then met our driver and began our day tour of Ooty.
Our first stop was at the highest point in Ooty, a viewpoint overlooking the town and surrounding areas. As we arrived, the clouds rolled in, all but obstructing any view we had. We then moved on to a tea plantation with a museum of history regarding the tea production in the area, as well as a demonstration of how the tea is made. We sampled ample cups of chai while Ross made a few purchases. There was a chocolate factory attached to the tea factory, and we all filled up on cheap homemade chocolates.
Satisfied, we made our way to the tiger reserve. The park claims to have one of the most dense population of tigers in India and was the reason we wanted to go. This journey was more difficult than need be as the road was closed due to construction. Our driver knew a backroad detour that hooked onto the road after the roadblock, avoiding a several hour detour had we not found a way to get around the roadblock. We finally arrived to the reserve and rented the last room available in the entire reserve. They assured us it could fit three people, but when we stepped foot in the room there was only one double bed. There wasn’t anything we could do at that point, we resigned ourselves to the fact all three of us would have to sleep in the one bed.
We quickly made our way to the elephant camp for their feeding. When we arrived they were bringing the elephants to the feeding area, the sound of their chains echoing on the pavement as they walked. It was one of the saddest things I have observed and I immediately wanted to leave. I read once that to train the elephants to bend to the trainers will they take them from their mothers when they are very young and proceed to ‘crush their spirit.’ As I looked at the elephants that sentiment ran true; the sadness eminated from their very beings. This reserve and elephant camp was recommended by Lonely Planet and they either have never visited it themselves, or have a very pathetic and unethical view on the wellbeing of the animals. I have become less and less of a fan of the LP books the more we have traveled, and this was certainly the nail in the coffin for me. The books are outdated as soon as they are printed, the maps are often wrong, and the opinions written are that of one person. I much prefer TripAdvisor where I can get the most uptodate information and opinions from hundreds of people. I intend to write LP a strongly worded email about their recommendation, and that I no longer will be a customer because of it.
We made our way back to our little room, all exhausted from the efforts of the day. We fell into fitful sleeps, unable to move without disturbing our neighbor in the tiny double bed.
We awoke early to try our luck on a ‘safari,’ which I had little faith that we would see any animals on. It took an hour to fill the bus, and the hour long drive had our only animal sightings being ample amounts of deer, and a mongoose. The reserve claims one of the highest densities of tigers but I would be very curious to know when the last actual sighting was.
We packed our bags quickly and waited on the side of the road for a bus going to our next destination, Mysore. After an hour of waiting we snagged seats on a comfortable AC bus.
Once in Mysore we stored our bags at the bus station before making our way to the Mysore Palace. The palace is regarded as one of the best in the world (it was completed in 1912) and we had been told by fellow travelers how incredible it was. An audio guide was included in our ticket and was very informative and added a lot to our visit. The palace was indescribable, one of the most beautiful places we visited in all of our travels. Pictures were unfortunately not allowed, but google the palace and you will see some breathtaking (professional) images.
After viewing the palace we headed to a nearby internet cafe to get some errands done. After we had our fill of the internet we made our way to the bus station to pick our bags before then going to the train station to catch our overnight train to Hampi. As you can tell, we were moving very fast, taking night trains and buses to save on days!
The evening passed on the train in an uneventful fashion until we awoke at 6:00 am for our anticipated stop at 6:20 am. We were told by a helpful local that the train was 6 hours late due to things being stolen from the train during the night. 6 hours. That was a lot of time for us as we planned to stay only the day exploring the vast ruins and then head out on an overnight bus to Goa. There was absolutely nothing we could do about the delay and went back to sleep, hoping the time would pass quickly.
We finally arrived to Hospet, the city closest to Hampi, four and a half hours later than expected. We tried to find a cloak room to store our things but it seemed dodgy and we decided to head to Hampi and figure things out there. Once in Hampi we found a lovely guesthouse that charged us a small fee to rent a room for the day to store our things, and were able to arrange us a tuktuk to take us around the ancient ruins for the day, before dropping us at the bus that evening. We went next door for a bite to eat at a Tibetan restaurant as it had been 26 hours since I had last eaten, and around 16 for the guys. We ordered the thali, and although it took forever as they made everything fresh, it was incredible. The best part was it came with a massive serving of bananofie pie for dessert. They also had delicious fresh juices which we took advantage of. Refueled, we headed out to tackle the most important ruins of Hampi. I say the most important as there are so many, and they are so spread out, we had to choose carefully what we wanted to see. Our tuktuk driver was lovely and made sure to give us bits of information about the places we were visiting. As impressive as the ruins were, I was much more amazed with the surrounding landscape. Massive boulders, bigger than any I have ever seen, dot the landscape everywhere you look, giving the area an unearthly look. We had a very rushed, but very amazing day taking in the scenery and ruins. I didn’t take a single picture all day, I must have been too exhausted from the train. I regret not taking at least one!
Hampi provided me with a new favorite animal (replacing the honeybadger); the sloth bear. I did not know these beasts existed until I read that you shouldn’t wander the ruins at night as there had been sightings of sloth bears within the ruins. The name intrigued me and I did a bit of reading about the creature and it easily surpassed my love of honeybadgers in one sitting. All I have to do now is spot one in the wild! (If you don’t believe me read about them, they are awesomely ferocious!)
We had a quick fruit juice before heading to catch our night bus to Vagator Beach, Goa. We arrived to the bus, our first sleeper in India, and cracked up at the arrangements. Each berth had not one, but two, adjacent side by side sleeper beds. Meaning, you could end up sleeping very uncomfortably close to a stranger. Chris and I had booked two beds together, but poor Ross was a lone ranger. His face each time an Indian man boarded the bus was priceless, you could see the fear in his eyes. He was lucky and had both beds to himself for the entire night.
We made it to Vagator early the next morning, checked into our hostel, and then Chris and I spent the day doing paperwork to renew our licenses for the year. Ross rented a scooter for the day and spent the day exploring the area with other hostel guests. One of them was a fellow Canadian, from New Brunswick no less! We chatted that evening about how small of a world it is, meeting each other in middle of no where India. It was really nice to sit around and banter with a fellow Canuck who understood all of our slang. We headed to the fort to catch the tail end of the sunset over the beach, a stunning end to a long day.
The following day saw the guys head out on scooters in the morning while I caught up on my blog and then headed for a walk on the beach. Although nice, it really wasn’t anything overly special. That afternoon I reluctantly agreed to join the guys on the scooters to head to a more deserted beach. I was reluctant as most of you know my awful history with cycle bikes; two wheeled forms of transformation are just not my cup of tea. I knew my limits from the get-go, insisting I join one of the guys on the back of their scooter. Chris was still getting used to his so I jumped on with Ross. It marked my first time on a scooter, and most certainly my last. Ross was a fantastic driver, yet I could not shake the all encompassing feeling of vulnerability. I kept looking at my legs thinking what a disaster they would be if we even slid slightly. Combined with the ridiculous Indian drivers on the road, I was very close to having a complete meltdown. I made it through to the beach, trying to enjoy the sunshine but thinking of nothing but having to get back on the scooter. The ride home passed a little easier than the ride out, until we were stopped at a police checkpoint. We noticed immediately they were stopping only foreigners, and I was instantly suspicious. They asked for the boys licenses, which Ross quickly produced his and the officer began arguing a class 5 license isn’t suitable for a scooter rental. We knew for a fact it was, and disputed vehemently with them. Chris lost his license to the cause of Rohan’s bachelor party, and they said if he couldn’t produce anything then the fine was 950 rupees ($19 CAD). Ross thought quickly on his feet and handed his international drivers license to Chris, who handed it to me, which I shoved in my purse, pretended to root around for a minute, and then magically pulled it out. Chris handed it to the officer who took a look at it, including the passport photo which was quite obviously of Ross, who was standing directly beside Chris, and all the officer said to Chris was,
This is you?”
Chris nodded confidently and stated indeed it was him, and the officer somehow bought it. That didn’t stop him from then trying to fine us for all sorts of different reasons, until I was fed up and said it was obvious he was looking for a bribe. He said he could write us a receipt for the fine but it wouldn’t be available until the next day. We said either he write us a receipt immediately, or take us to the station, or we weren’t paying a thing. His partner had long since given up on us and had flagged down other tourists, and when we called to him he told us to just go. We hopped on our scooters, the first cop bewildered and still trying to squeeze money out of us, as we peeled away shouting over our shoulders to take it up with his partner. The amount of time Chris and I have spent on the road made us a bit brazen, but it paid off. We relayed our encounter to the other guests at the hostel and one of them hung his head in shame, he had paid a 1900 rupee fine ($38 CAD) several weeks earlier. A good tip to know if you plan on renting scooters- don’t pay a fine unless you have a receipt in your hand!
Once back at the hostel we mingled with the other guests before heading to a local restaurant for some delicious food. Most guests then headed out to an all you could drink party, but Chris and I opted to stay in as it didn’t really seem like our type of place. One of the other guests the next day said it was a very bizarre Russian mega party.
The next day we made our way down the coast to Palolem Beach, a nicer stretch of beach than Vagator, with less people. We found a satisfactory hut overlooking the beach and grabbed a few sundowner beers to enjoy on the patio. The smells from the restaurant beside our hut were tantalizing, and it didn’t take us long to find our way there. We had the best golden fry calamari any of us have ever had, as well as a nice fish curry dish. We wanted to try the local spirit called fenney, and ordered a mixture of the coconut and cashew flavors. We thought it would be slightly alcoholic but more so flavorful, what we got was basically three shots of vodka. That was our first and last dabble in the fenney.
The next day we woke up early for a swim, and then hit the local stores for some much needed beachwear shopping. All of our clothes are meant for colder climates, so we each found a few new pieces and threw out some old ones. The afternoon was passed very lazily on the beach.
The following day was the hottest day yet, and as much as we tried to stick it out on the beach we had to seek shelter in the room relatively early. We then had an early supper before Chris and I had to catch a tuktuk to the bus station to catch our night bus to Bangalore, the city from which we would catch our flight to Sri Lanka. It was very sad saying goodbye to Ross, he was a great traveling companion for us and it seemed time absolutely flew with him.
Our bus to Bangalore was uneventful other than being an hour late, but once in Bangalore things became complicated. We made our way to the local bus station to catch a bus downtown, but absolutely no one at the station was any sort of help to us to figure out what bus we needed to take. Finally, after half an hour of asking numerous people, a conductor gave a curt nod to signal his bus was going where we were headed. He then told his when to get off and quickly pointed that we should continue to walk straight. We had planned to find an internet cafe to spend the day getting caught up on things. Our bus arrived very early so nothing was open yet, so we headed to a large chain coffee shop to get wifi and our bearings as we weren’t entirely sure where the bus dropped us. The wifi necessitated having a mobile number to activate, which neither of us had, so we chugged our coffee and headed out. We tried to ask directions to people on the street to another coffee shop, but again, everyone was in a hurry and unwilling to help. We finally figured out where we were and found the coffee shop we were looking for, only to be told that their internet was down due to the rain. How ironic, the most tech savy city in India sees the internet falter due to the weather. We shook our heads and headed out to try our luck at a third stop, trusty McDonalds, only to find out that they also require a mobile number to access wifi. *Face Palm*
We decided to spend a few hours there taking care of work that could he done offline, before heading to an internet cafe that Chris had found and was told by the shopkeeper adjacent would be open at 11:30.
We walked into the internet cafe at 12 and the young boy working asked us how long we wanted to stay. We said a few hours, and he informed us in a disgruntled fashion that he was leaving in a half an hour due to the rain. It absolutely boggled my mind that he had paying customers but wanted to leave. He begrudgingly let us print our visas for Sri Lanka before pressuring us out the door. Chris and I were beyond fed up at this point, it felt like everything we were trying to do was thwarted in some way or another. We went back to the coffee shop to see if their internet was up and running, and thankfully it had been fixed and we spent the next few hours trying to get things in order. We had dinner next door at a bar, and then headed to the street to try and catch a cab to the airport. This is one of the easiest tasks in any major city, even in India, but for some reason we were not able to find any cabs that weren’t occupied. We stopped in at a travel agent and asked if there was a stand nearby or somewhere we could go to get a cab, but he said unfortunately there wasn’t and if he called one for us it would cost an exorbitant amount. He told us about the airport shuttle bus, which we had read about, and gave us rough directions to get to the stand. We still had enough time to catch a bus so we set out to make it to the stop. The directions he gave were dodgy and we kept having to stop and ask people along the way. I haven’t mentioned before in my blog about the Indian head bobble, but I feel it is a crucial component of this story. It is a gesture they use frequently to convey their feeling, as we would use our hands or nod our head yes or no. However, the bobble is an intermediate between nodding ones head yes and nodding ones head no. Our entire time in India we have tried to batten down a definitive meaning for the bobble, but were unsuccessful. This was painstakingly highlighted as we asked people if we were going the correct way for the airport shuttle and were answered with the dreaded head bobble. I could have screamed. We eventually asked enough people to find our way to the road the shuttle stopped, but we had no idea which side to stand on, nor what time the next one was coming. We asked several people and were unable to get any answers so we decided to abandon that plan and headed to a jewelry store close by to call us a cab, accepting that we would have to pay whatever price to get a cab. When we asked the people working at the jewelry store, a conglomerate of floor workers and security guards, they said no! It was 5:20 pm and the airport was 40 kms away. Our flight was at 9 pm, meaning we had to leave by 6 pm at the latest. We left the store in a state of despair, standing outfront without a clue where to turn to get help. One of the security guards then ran out of the store and said we had to cross the street immediately as the airport shuttle was in the traffic line and the stop was on the other side of the intersection. Just as the light turned we dashed into the intersection to the sound of hundreds of blaring horns in protest, and sprinted as fast as we could to catch the bus. It did not look like it was going to stop despite our yells, but finally it slowed and it was clear they had seen us. We climbed on, totally out of breath, and laughed in disbelief that we made it. It was a fitting end to the calamity of India, and we very happily boarded our flight to Sri Lanka, closing the India chapter of our trip for good.
My final thoughts on India? It is one of the most valuable places you could ever travel. It overwhelms you in every way possible, challenging you at ever turn, pushing you out of your comfort zone until you feel like you are going to break. That is when you realize how this process is changing you, causing you go grow personally to adapt to your environment. There is no where better to test your patience, and nothing will ever be quite as trying in comparison. Some of our best, and some of our worst travel experiences were had during our two months in India. We are grateful for our time in India, but it isn’t high on our countries to revisit in the near future.