The Road to Kerala
After the escape from Paradise Beach, I traveled in short order a string of towns in southern Karnataka—Udupi, Mangalore, Madikeri, and Mysore—before crossing the Western Ghats via the hill station of Ooty. Herein are those travels covered.
Cat, Lola, and I left Gokarne on the 4:20 train to Udupi, two hours south of there on the coast of the Arabian Sea. I had spent that afternoon tracking down a used copy of Moby Dick and drinking lemon soda and eating mango ice cream at a chai shop on Car Street and met the girls at the bus station at 3. It was the first time Cat had taken a local train, and she enjoyed the experience of hospitable locals, an easy pace, and good scenery: the wide rivers and jungles of western Karnataka.
I sat next to a man with his head in his friend’s lap. Indian men have no scruples about affection, even holding hands on the beach. He sat up and fell asleep on the shoulder. The train passed across rivers as wide as lakes with fishing villages on the forested banks, and continued into a verdant green country that grew steadily dryer and rockier as we moved south. Chai wallahs with their samovars and beggars with their haversacks moved down the aisle, as did a solid-faced Indian man in drag, who clapped loudly in everyone’s faces.
This is a strange custom of India: it is said by some that if you pay these primped up sages they deliver a blessing, and by others that if you do not they apply a curse. The transvestite slapped the man next to me lightly in the face to wake him up off his friend’s shoulder but received nothing. Even the Indians seemed perturbed by him/her. It was the first time I had ever seen them perturbed by anything.
Three English backpackers in local garb and dreadlocks, named Georgia, Harry, and Charlie, disembarked the train with us, and we all split a taxi from the station into Udupi proper. Our cab driver’s name was Valerius and he asked me, priveleged by the length of my legs to sit next to him in the front, if I was Christian. “Are you reading the Bible?” he asked. I answered, evasively, “Not right now.” Undeterred, the Valerius asked, “But do you live with the word of God in your heart?” I asked him if he was Catholic, and he said, “No, not Catholic, Christian. I was Catholic but now I am only a follower of Jesus.” What strange things the Jesuits wrought!
The hot exhaustion of the day, the lateness of the night, and the apparent lack of accommodation in Udupi combined to put a sour temper on the Brits, especially Georgia, who became infuriated with the Indians and treated them horribly as we went from hotel to hotel asking for a place to lay our heads. “Yes I know it’s over there!” she cried,—“I heard you the first time. Hi, rooms? Do you have any rooms? Vacancy? No rooms? Eight hundred rupees! I don’t understand it, how can they all be full. I think they see tourists and they turn us away, they just don’t want us here.”
We all entertained theories on why all the hotels turned us away as we wandered the dark streets. Eventually we settled into Hotel Janarda, where our triple room had a television. It seemed very novel after so much time away from cable’s comforting glow, and we eagerly sat in front of a Jackie Chan movie and Michael Bay’s horrendous Armageddon, and continued to watch it as long as the power grid was working.
As for why the other hotels turned us away so contemptuously and unhelpfully, I cannot know—because we were foreigners or because they were truly full—but we found out later that Udupi is one of Hinduisms most sacred sites. Few travelers know about it or are attracted by the two inches it receives in Lonely Planet, and the Hindus want to keep it that way.
The following day we went to the Sri Krishna Temple complex that ran in a circuit around Shiva's Anantheshwara Temple, with eight gates leading off from the circuit to the city. Three pagoda-chariots of different heights rested between the Anantheshwara and the Sri Krishna Temples, and there were other lesser used chariots tucked off in the corners, as well as an elephant with a hawkish mahout who would have made an excellent Nazi and may have enjoyed that profession more than his current one.
Now Anantheshwara looked like a long, low warehouse with upturned eaves, and the Sri Krishna Temple, entered through Dravidian-style gates—high, tiered, and overdecorated—contained a dozen shrines and halls of old stone and wood connected by courtyards with high tin roofs. Therein witness India’s propensity for contradictions, indescribable in the way that most of India is indescribable: ancient shrines with tin rooftops, cows and tourists, pop music and chanting, Krishna icons and comic books, weird looks and genuine hospitality, monks who will invite you for lunch and touts who give nothing away for free.
Hindus line up to experience darshan, a ritual of divine contact, in front of a little gold idol of Krishna, which to them is the god himself, just as to a good Catholic the Communion bread is literally the body of Christ. Krishna is seated on a soft pillow inside a dark room and could be viewed only at arm’s length through a sort of lattice screen carved with elephants and spirits, which the Hindus caress in the rapture of their darshan. Prayers spill from their mouths, and they look at their god and then turn away and float off into the rest of the temple.
This was all very strange, but the first temple we went into was a much smaller one, called the Chandreshwara Temple. The god sits in a shrine in the middle of the room. At night they take the god out in a little gold palanquin an walk it around the shrine in a procession. Priests bang or wail on their instruments, and the laity follow somberly behind. By day, however, another ceremony was taking place.
We heard music upstairs, and venturing there found a wedding underway. Manjula-Ganesh, said the banner at the end of the long, columned hallway, and on the stage under it sat the bride and groom in exotic and multi-hued costumes, across an unlit fire from their bare-chested rishi. The bride’s brother stood behind her, a strong, mustachioed Hindu in a red jacket and white turban, and other family members and dignitaries stood there as well, watching the rishi perform some rite. Lola and I took seats at the back, behind two hundred Indians, and Cat went up to take pictures.
A lone Christian, whose mother had been the bride’s neighbor and who did not know anyone at the Hindu wedding, came and sat by me and practiced his English. I asked Roshan about parts of the ceremony, but he was as clueless as me. “It is Hindu wedding,” he said. He asked me about my hobbies, told me he liked television, especially WWE wrestling, and knew a lot more about it than I did. He told me he was already thirty. “I must marry in the next two years, or it is the end of the world. Tell me, until how late will you roam about tonight?”
I treated the question as seriously as it was delivered. “I don’t know,” I said,—“I’ll roam about as long as there’s something worth doing.”
Some uncle of the bride invited Cat and the rest of us to lunch upstairs, though Lola, still feeling ill from some bad fish on Paradise Beach, went back to the hotel. Cat and I were among the second crowd to be seated at the long metal tables set out on the cement in the half-constructed third floor. Servants, shirtless and wearing orange dhotis, placed banana leaves before us, then went around with tins of rice, breads, curries, chutneys, and sweets—two dozen dishes, things I’d tried before and things only served at weddings, which kept falling onto our banana leaves until I thought I would burst.
Leaving the wedding with the crowd, we had to turn down offers of food at the Shri Krishna Temple and spent a long time sitting in the cool tranquility of the Anantheshwara Temple. I wondered at the gods and watched a young mother and daughter pray before an idol. The girl looked to her mother to know when to put her hands to her forehead and when to kneel and when to prostrate herself fully, but became bored with the whole thing before the ritual was concluded and had to be forced through it like a doll.
There was a festival that night. Around sunset, three musicians seated under the eves of the Sri Krishna Temple started a cacophony of noise with their drums and horns as Hindus piled inside to receive their evening pooja. There was a pool, one floor beneath ground level, off the back of the temple, with a shrine in the middle. Some Brahmin priests boarded a little raft tied to the ghats there and paddled it around. It had a generator on-board to power its floodlights and gaudy colored bulbs. Two bands circled the pool, one playing an imperial marching tune, the other trumpeting some Indian religious noise.
An hour passed, and then the Brahmins emerged carrying the little golden Krishna idol, which they bore up into the pagoda of one of the chariots. Hindus crowded up to pull two of the three great chariots around the temple circuit by long ropes. The surly mahout menaced with his stick the elephant god, who had earlier delivered a kiss to me, and who presently raised his trunk and trumpeted a salute as the chariots began to move.
The elephant and the mahout joined the procession, behind a band and some fire-bearers and devotees, which made its way to the wide lane on the other side of the circuit. The chariots stopped there, and the Hindus lit a lot of things on fire, and little kids in monkey suits danced around in the flames. Someone shot off cheap fireworks that exploded so close to the city that they showered the temples and the congregation in sparks. A few of the explosives failed to go off in the air, and landed, sputtering flames, amidst the crowd, who moved away tensely.
As the Hindus prepared to pull the chariots back to the Sri Krishna Temple, I moved into the crowd with the two long-haired Englanders, George and Charlie, that gathered around the two lines of rope. I heaved as much as I could in the little room allowed by such a mass of people, many of them only vaguely touching the rope to receive whatever blessing that conferred, and with great sweating effort and some chanting by the Brahmins we settled the chariots back where they belong.
Cat and I learned later that there is a festival in Udupi four nights a week, that it is among India’s holiest places, that all the goldsmiths in the alleys around the district buy donations of precious jewels and metals from the temples, which receive them from all across India, to turn into jewelry. Yet few foreigners know of it, and the Indians want it that way.
The two ladies with whom I shared my room did not know what to do or where to go the next day; we had left Gokarne in such a hurry and with no plans; and I, having decided to proceed down the coast to Mangalore that night, regardless of what the indecisive womenfolk decided to do next, I set off early the next morning. Something told me that it would be good to visit the fishing village of Malpe and the nearby St. Mary’s Island that the Bible recommended as a day trip.
Malpe: filthy streets, sewers like open sores, harbor so crowded with blue-painted fishing boats it seemed impossible for any of them to leave, docks lined with red fishing nets mended by a horde of Indians, and a boat across to the shallow atoll of St. Mary’s Island, itself almost capsized with Indian tourists and a Bollywood film crew, palm groves bisected by cobblestone paths, with strange crystalline formations of gray granite on the beaches, the shore lined with sea shells rather than sand, and the heat! I sat in the shade with my shirt off, licking a mango ice cream bar and waiting for the ferry back to the lee shore.
I returned to Udupi in the afternoon and went down to an ancient restaurant near the Krishna Temple, Mitra Samaj, a restaurant known for the excellence of its masala dhosa in the birthplace of the masala dhosa.
Now, the dhosa is a wondrous invention, better by far than the telephone or peanut butter—a sort of fried pancake, wrapped cylindrically around a ladled stew of potatoes and onion and masala curry, green in color, slightly spicy in flavor. Tear away a bit of the cylinder, but use only the right hand, the left is for dirty things and insults—tear away a bit, and use it like a plastic bag at a crime scene to pick up some potatoes and as much of that masala as you can get, dip it in the hot soup and the spicy white chutney, toss the soggy bundle in your mouth, and don’t bother to hide the evidence of your savoring it—it would be impossible!
I met Lola at the hotel, and we packed up our things. She had gone to see the AIDS Train that was in town for one day only, a surprisingly progressive champion that did not fall into the rut of “abstinence only,” but handed out free condoms and provided free phones so visitors could call their family in the country and let them know what a problem HIV had become in India. At the station across the street we got on the next bus heading south to Mangalore, and took a tuk-tuk to the Hotel Surya, where I had arranged to meet Cat, and saw the Welshwoman coming up toward the road as we arrived.
Cat did not know where to go next. She wanted to get away into rural India and be alone with her camera and her subjects and experience something spiritual like Udupi. Her baggage was in a locker at a train station, but she did not have a ticket. Lola and I would go to Madikeri and told her to come, but she had not decided either way when we went to get chai and samosas at a local place, then went up to the mall near the train station, browsed a Western bookstore, and ate at Pizza Hut. It was no small wonder that after all she decided to go off on her own and pursue whatever mystic quality she was looking for in India. Lola and I saw Zombieland at the mall’s cinema.
There was not much to see in Mangalore, though the nearby Jain temples and the exhibit of some Maharaja’s car collection are supposed to be very admirable. I had chosen Mangalore out of the Lonely Planet map for one reason only: the food, especially the spicy seafood, the deep-fried prawn koliwada and the fish in coconut curry. I enjoyed such treats the following day before Lola and I got on a bus up into the mountains of the Coorg region. The tiers of tea and spice plantations broke into the lush forests, and in the troughs between steep hills lay rice paddies, dry that time of year. Arriving in the uneven hill station of Madikeri after dark, we trooped around asking at hotels (the sun takes much of your bargaining power with it when it goes) and checked into the Paramount.
The next day, Lola lost her debit card to an overzealous ATM. It was a Sunday and in India, where horror stories circulated of malfunctioning cash machines and rude employees who cut up any devoured plastic, no matter how much its worth, and said, “If it’s not our bank, we can’t return it, that’s our policy.” The thousand incarnations of worry ran amok through Lola’s head—how would she pay for things? get a new card? explain this to her parents? survive? Though it was Sunday, the security grate was cracked open, looking in on a marble room that would have been familiar as a bank anywhere in the world, and into the crack of doom Lola cried, “Is anyone there? The machine ate my card, and I need help—please!”
The two Indians standing by a rack of sunglasses on the sidewalk reminded us that Sunday was a holiday. “I know,” said Lola, despairing, and she explained her situation before heading back toward the abyss. One of the Indians pointed to the other and said, “Manager.” Collecting herself, Lola turned to this one, who smiled broadly, and implored him to help, falling not quite so far as to her knees, but close. The manager said, “Let me see what I can do,” and went inside. He returned from the blackened bank a few minutes later with the card. Lola cried, “Thank you!” and almost hugged the man before remembering where she was, but the manager seemed rewarded enough by her rapturous expression.
A nearby tourist office, that some Swedes had recommended, arranged a trek for us that would depart for the hills and plantations the following morning, all things permitting, and stay out there overnight, returning on the second afternoon. Lola and I had that day for whatever we could find to occupy our time. The travel agent offered us a tour of a nearby enclave of Tibetan Buddhists and an elephant training camp, but we decided to make our own way to the sites.
The trip began on a local bus, an hour east on a winding road through dense fir forests, to Kushalnagar. Local buses in India work like this: instead of a sign on the front to say where the bus is headed, an Indian is hired to lean out the window and cry the name of the intended town—for example, “Mysoremysoremysore,”—and instead of a door sensor, an Indian is employed in the back to whistle with his fingers whenever all the passengers have boarded. The buses are the same width as buses anywhere, only five people are crammed across instead of four, two in a seat wide enough for one and three in the seat big enough to fit two. I could not figure how many more benches the Indians placed from front to back, but I can say that someone tall as I had a tough time of scraped knees taking a seat.
In Kushalnagar the forest subsided into rolling green plains, though the air was still cooler than the coastal flatlands. From Kushalnagar we hired a tuk-tuk a short way to Bykkopar, and then to a town just within the Tibetan enclave. Some Tibetans, exemplifying the humble charity and quietly gregarious spirit of most Buddhists, noticed our confusion and offered to let us ride in their tuk-tuk most of the way to the Golden Temple. The Buddhists are respectable not only for their amicability, but also for their absence of culinary taboos—we enjoyed beef dumplings and pork noodle soup at a Tibetan restaurant near the temple.
The Golden Temple itself, distinct from the Golden Temple of the Sikhs in Amritsar, was a newly constructed marble, like most of the enclave. Within the great tiered shrine, the top crowned with rays and towers, the great hall was painted with demons and Buddhas. Three gilded statues of Bodhisattvas, each thirty-feet high, sat in meditation at the far end. Buddhists chanted and played discordant prayer music in another shrine.
Our next stop: the Dubare Elephant Camp, 350 rupees away by tuk-tuk. Let us hitchhike! A cement tuk-tuk carried us to the bus station in Bykkopar, and we returned to Kushalnagar, took a private bus north, and walked the last mile to the camp through a palm forest and wide plantation fields.
The camp itself was across a wide, shallow stream, with many rocks and islands and willow trees with roots like whips. The ferryman informed us, as he took us across, that we only had fifteen minutes before the camp closed. We refused the entry price and watched a few of the lumbering beasts bathe, dragging chains from their heavy hoofs; then we hopped back across the rocks like little Mowglis, hitched to Kushalnagar with a nice old Indian couple from Jaipur, and in a jeep a ways further, and took a bus back to Madikeri.
At 8 in the morning Lola and I met our guide at the travel agency. Kirin Kumar, the agent’s cousin, was a simple, awkward, honest-faced Indian, an middle-aged and country-bred bachelor, who always seemed bewildered by the responsibility we trusted to him. Two Londoners, David and Beverley, would accompany us on the trek. They had well-fitted backpacks, Nalgene bottles, professional camera equipment, hiking boots, and wilderness shirts. I was wearing flip-flops and cotton shorts, and Lola had a pair of crocks, and we could not have been more prepared for adventure.
As a young gentleman-caller, David had lived with Beverley in a room of her parents house—no mean accommodation: the house had twenty rooms, and they had their own floor to themselves. Beverley’s mother sold the house and gave all the profits to her daughter, and the young couple spent it traveling. David proposed to her on the peak of a Himalayan mountain, looking up through the icy gale at Everest. They had been all over Southeast Asia and were reminded of it constantly. Anything they saw or heard drew forth some relevant anecdote about Sumatran volcanoes or Thai cockroaches.
With some of Beverley’s dowry David purchased increasingly expensive camera equipment, until he had a suite of cameras and lenses and tripods worth many thousands of dollars. He sold his pictures to stock photo agencies that paid him 50 cents every time one was downloaded. The pictures of animals were generally his best sellers. “I only take pictures of unique individuals,” said David,—“Unfortunately, there’s not many of them.”
Kirin led us on a local bus out to a town in the hills called Dhalibidoo. Six-hundred people lived there in homesteads spread in the forested hills surrounding a number of rice paddies, connected by raised footpaths and forest trails. Tethered cows trumped around the empty fields, and calves and piglets squealed in pens around the periphery. We left our things at the house of the Family Rai, where we would spend the night. The young couple had a young daughter named Hema, and the grandmother lived there, as well as a mut named Tony, chained up in the front. Though they used well-water and an outhouse, they also had satellite television and blasted old 90s hip-hop. Ah, India.
On that first day Kirin led us west toward the ridges, across the rice paddies of Dhalibidoo. Rice paddies in India’s breadbasket riverlands yield as many as four crops a year, but the mountainous farms grew only one, which had already been harvested. As we crossed the dry paddies, Kirin showed us touch-me-nots, small ferns that close up when you touch them, and pointed out butterflies and magtails and magpies.
David quoted the old English magpie rhyme: "One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret, never to be told; eight for a wish, nine for a kiss, ten for a time of joyous bliss." We looked all over for a second magpie to secure our joy, but in vain!
We entered the forest and climbed up a short ridge and down into a gully where a small farmstead grew cardamon in the shade, then climbed back up two-hundred meters of a rib bone to the long bald spine of Mount Nishani that ran from north to south. Kirin pointed west into the deep valley, where a solitary house stood out among the forest, and the Mangalore Road cut through it on its way north.
“There is the deep jungle,” said the guide, conjuring all sorts of romantic images: the tiger hunts of the Maharajas, the vibrant hues of cobras, the intense green of the foliage, the sublime discord of insects and birds, predators and prey, caught up in a dense floral confluence under branches so thick the sun cannot penetrate but in dappled patterns and dim purple light. There lie ruined temples, black walls split with overgrowth, hiding secret caches of some king’s cursed gold. Ah, the imagination goes grinning wild! “We go there on longer treks,” added Kirin.
On our way up to one of Mount Nishani’s vertebrae, Kirin pointed out some tiger’s droppings near the ridge trail. “They sell it at zoos,” said David,—“If you put it in your backyard, the neighborhood cats won’t shit there. They can smell it.” A tiger had crossed Nishani a few years ago, said Kirin, and left tracks up and down the ridge. It massacred almost fifty cows, that feline Jack the Ripper, before returning to the jungle.
We saw another type of feces: Some cat had picked out and eaten the best coffee beans, and left a turd that looked like some kind of peanut candy. David said that in some parts of the world they made coffee from those choice beans. They call the expensive ordure crappuchino. In my head I began devising ways to market my own bowel matter. Perhaps if I eat only the choicest foods, the idiot rich will buy the digested remnants, too.
The trail scrambled back down the hill through old streambeds with mossy walls as high as my head, and then passed through fields of rusted sword ferns, and Kirin halted us for a break under a tall oak tree. I noticed a sort of seat up in the tree, made of sticks lashed between the branches for a bench and foot rest, and asked about it. Hunters would sit there, said Kirin, and wait for wild boars to come. It was a local custom there to eat pork meat at a certain time of year. Kirin himself, a good Hindu, enjoyed all kinds of meat except beef. This reminded Kirin of a story of his, which he proceeded to tell with many digressions into laughter:
“I very young, I climb coconut tree with my brother. I climb all the way up with knife in my teeth and no way to get down. [Laughing] He stands at the bottom and catches coconuts. I—I finish, and then, no way to get down. [Laughing] So I hold on as long as I can, and then just slide down. [Laughing and pantomiming a scream, his arms held out in a sort of bear hug around the imagined trunk] Big scratches all down my arms, chest, legs—I used a rope to climb next time.”
Soon we returned to the Rai household, and the old grandmother served us banana trunk curry, rice, chapati, and coffee. Lola and the Brits pent themselves up indoors, and I went and sat over the rice paddies to write and enjoy the wilderness. Too much time in cities had made me almost forget the lively sounds and clean smells of the forest. Long after dinner, when the family had gone to bed, I unleashed Tony and ran out with him into the misty moonlit paddies.
Kirin Kumar arrived an hour late the following day, with a taciturn Frenchman named Jay in tow. David and Beverley had left early that morning, just after breakfast, and Lola had commissioned me to catch one of the piglets from a nearby pen.
I crouched and waited behind a haystack for the snorting mob to come up. One or two saw me peering and returned my look with a dread they appeared to quickly forget as they turned back to their task, rutting around in the hay for food. In a flash I sallied out, and the piglets scattered like crows. The sow started a terrible noise from where she was tied up to a stake and all the children made for her. I caught one little piglet by the back under my hand, but he wormed out and scrabbled up through some bushes to the sow’s pen, where I wouldn’t dare venture.
We set off east rather than west, past coffee and pepper farms. Along one side of the trail was a path leading back through a thick forest to an ancient looking temple with an intricate dome. Kirin told us it was a sacred grove, a forest of the gods that no man was allowed to touch. On one day a year the villagers congregated before the temple for a celebration, and the priests went up that path and attended the temple’s god, and then everyone departed and no one was allowed in the grove for another year. Anyone caught trespassing was fined $20—and that’s ten day’s wages for most of India.
Kirin pointed out wild mango and jackfruit trees and took a nearly ripe pomelo, a sort of Indian grapefruit, from its tree to enjoy later. We took a main road, then followed the Madikeri River to a place with shallow rapids and rocks, and there relaxed during the hot noontime. Kirin cut up the pomelo, which was sweet if you took off the skin—what a metaphor! After the break, we scrabbled down into and back up from a creek’s ravine, then up and over another mountain, and returned to the Rai household without further incident. We had lunch, and Kirin led us off toward the main road and the post office, where we waited for the bus back.
On the trail to the main road, off to one side was a little clearing in the forest; at the center, a sort of table made from sticks, garlanded with flowers, with bottles and offerings underneath, and there was a pile of rocks in front of it. An old woman of Dhalibidoo had died two weeks before. Her family burned her three parts—legs, torso, and head—on that rocky grave, where they erected the shrine to her memory. They took her head and some of the other ash to the temple in the sacred grove for puja, then put it in the Madikeri River, which flows into the Cauvery, one of India’s seven sacred streams. In a month, the monsoon rains will come and wash the shrine away, and the old woman will be but photos and memories.
The bus to Mysore took five hours, and its length was compounded by my bitter contempt for one of the other passengers. I had been warned before about men like him, who stare interminably and, in their opinion inoffensively, at women, and had laughed at the stories. At first I laughed at him, too, sitting ahead of us on the bus and staring back over the low headrests straight at Lola with an unreadable, placid look.
I asked him if he was married, and the stargazer, a sour-looking man about forty, interrupted his observation to tell me in his little English that he was married and his family was in Chennai, a long way away. “Well what happens in Madikeri stays in Madikeri,” I said with a smile. He went back to staring at Lola. Reading my book, I put it right in between the two, and the man moved up and down and side to side to restore his field of view, not urgently, but as if I were getting in the way of some film or painting. Lola asked him to please, stop staring at her. The man bobbled his head and kept staring.
Now my big brother instincts took over and my blood started boiling. I told the man off and slapped him in the back of the head with War and Peace and flicked him there continually, trying to antagonize him into a real confrontation. He would just turn around and stare at me inquisitively, as if I were the rude one and he was doing something perfectly admissible. The man said something to me in Hindi. I told him I didn’t understand and asked him if he understood my middle finger, only realizing after that he was saying, “Kushalnagar,” the name of the town where he would disembark, as if to say, “I’m only staring to Kushalnagar, so take it easy young man.”
During this strife, the mustachioed ticket valet, who was sitting just across the aisle from us, said some words to our stargazer, and they conversed pleasantly for a bit. The valet sat back down and looked at me helplessly. Not long after, when the Indian woman sitting next to Lola started shouting at our watcher, the valet stood up and argued fiercely with her until she stopped complaining. I wasn’t going to start a fight on an Indian bus and get kicked off in the middle of nowhere, but in my hot-blooded state, I sorely wanted to. I stared daggers at him when he left, and he patted my arm and walked off.
In Mysore, the Youth Hostel was full of visiting teachers, so our tuk-tuk driver took us to his friend’s place, a seedy place called Vishnu Bhavan. For dinner I had spicy Hydrabadi masala chicken, and despite the appearance of a blood-bloated bed bug, I slept very fitfully and woke up at 8. In Mysore I continued my food tour of southern Karnataka. Lola and I walked through the opening bazaar and found a place called Indra Cafes Paras for breakfast. All the tables were full, and food continually cycled out from the kitchen. There is no waiting to pay the bill in India, no enjoying coffee and conversation—finish and leave, or the waiter will shout, “Jao, jao!”—Get, get! even if you haven’t paid yet.
To start I picked out bisibele bath, which was rice with a spicy chickpea and lentil gravy. There was uddina vada, a sort of fried doughnut with spinach inside, and idli rice balls, both served with the same chutney and spicy soup as the masala dhosa—and Indra served the dhosa as well, with masala potatoes or rava onion. They made deserts as well: milk treats called burfi, made with cashew, chocolate, coconut, or pistachio, and a sugary treat called gulag jamoon, a specialty of Mysore.
That day we visited the Mysore Palace of the Wodeyar Maharajas—the gilded cage that the British built for their gilded peacock princelings, in a beautiful Indo-Saracenic style. The emblem of the double-headed eagle and the elephant-horse-lion of the royal House of Wodeyar was everywhere. All along the marble walls ran a painted scene of a royal parade, soldiers and bands and caparisoned elephants, with the Maharaja himself riding in a golden howdah. In the garden outside there were high, tiered Dravidian temples, and courtyards and soda shops, and lines of Indian tourists.
A dealer of perfume and incense caught the two of us, sauntering back through the bazaar. We smelled his scented oils alongside a French couple from Marseilles who had been Couchsurfing. They told Lola, who was considering the offer of ten perfume bottles in a rosewood box, that she could mail it all home. “How many packages have you sent already?” I asked. “Five.” “Wow,” said the French,—“You’ve done better than us.” Eventually I got two bottles of something and a hundred incense sticks (sandalwood, jasmine, cinnamon, and rose), and Lola got eight bottles, incense, and coconut oil, for $16 total.
We ate dinner at a Tibetan restaurant, full of robed Buddhists watching the India-South Africa cricket game, had drinks at a hotel bar, and later that night, following an Indian’s recommendation, took a tuk-tuk to Planet X. It turned out not to be a night club but a sort of Chuck E. Cheese funtown that also served drinks. We rode the go karts.
Ooty was a crowded hill station in a hollow of the Niligri Hills of Tamil Nadu, between Mysore and the border of Kerala. The real name is Ootacamund or Udhagamandalam, but the Brits who built their summer homes there found it unpronounceable.
The road to Ooty swerved up along beautiful ridges and promontories, through dense forests and tiered tea plantations and vegetable farms, and tiger zones and tribal ones, and the bus broke down only once. We took an afternoon bus there from Mysore, after eating at Indra Cafe and visiting the train museum, and did not arrive until 6:30, when it was already getting cool. The whole place was cool, green, and wet, and I was happy to pull my sweatshirt out from the bottom of my bag.
Checking into the Green Valley Hotel on the lake and went to dinner and had drinks with a stout Irish lad named Ivan and his Brooklyn girlfriend Ger, talking about Thailand and the Indians. We had to leave the next day in order to get to Kochin for the Holi Festival, although I could have stayed in Ooty a while. It was crowded and dirty from Indian tourism, a city of old and poorly maintained colonial buildings, with an infill of ramshackle domiciles that appeared to use the solid British buildings as support.
I left early to walk around the next day, snacking at weird local places, and went up a hill and past the nursing school at the top, then past St. Stephen’s Church to the square the Indians call Charing Cross, and ended up at the Botanical Gardens. I spent a few hours reading there, where it smelled like potpourri, before walking back down toward the lake. On one side of that road stood the Shrine of Baby Jesus, and statues of Jesus and Mary peered out from niches on the facade.
Christianity is common in Kerala and the surrounding areas, though it is Christianity on Indian terms. Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary are worshiped in the same manner as any Hindu god, by burning tapers and incense set in tall pagoda towers before icons, by hanging flower garlands on them, by prostrating oneself barefoot before them, and by individual prayer and communal music; and like the deities of the Hindu trinity, the Christian God appears in many aspects or incarnations, Baby Jesus being but one. In Alleppey in Kerala I later saw a statue of Jesus painted blue like Shiva or Krishna or one of the pagan gods.