India | Thrissur: January 14-17, 2009

January 14th, 2009

Woke up early today to get ready and leave Ooty. Karthik kept calling our driver to ask him to meet us to get our extra money back. He started saying he’d be there shortly and then just kept making excuses that he’d gone to take some people elsewhere or that he’d come tomorrow. We obviously couldn’t wait till then, so Karthik being pissed at this con artist, it was just a lesson learned – never to trust these fools. In the meantime, as we checked out of our hotel, Karthik spoke to the manager and gave him the list of all our complaints and that we needed some discount on our stay. The manager kept making excuses, but finally agreed that we were in the right and offered us some discount. The amount of teeth pulling involved! Argh!

Our other driver had come on time and we left with him. Before we left, we went to a gas station next to the hotel to fill up. This was right near the taxi stand where the scammers were. So Karthik just left the cab and walked over and actually found the monkey there! The nerve! He was supposedly gone to take some tourists somewhere else, which is why he couldn’t come to meet Karthik. Karthik just said straight up that we needed the money. Hesitantly, he paid and Karthik just walked back to our cab. After that, the idiot actually came to our cab as we were leaving the gas station and then cursed himself for having paid up! Imagine that!! We (especially Karthik) really need to stop trusting so much and err on the side of caution.

After this episode, we were on our way downhill and along the way, we passed Coonoor, seeing tea plantations again. Today was a lot foggier, so it was just amazing to see the tea estates shrouded in mist. It was just wicked – possibly the most scenic thing we’d seen so far! This trip downhill was far more picturesque than the one uphill from Mysore. We were so close to the many mountains and it was all seemingly covered in fog, adding to the whole effect. All the sides of the mountains were lush and not a bit left uncovered in green. There were all sorts of trees, shrubs, and plants everywhere we looked – it was a massive mountainous forest we were driving through. The air was cool and crisp, and there was that right amount of humidity that made for a great climate to enjoy the sights by. The driver was driving pretty fast and taking the sharp turns with more confidence than what seemed humanly possible! We stopped to take pics at one point, where we were surrounded by vast tea estates and tall mountains so close to each other we couldn’t even see the valley down below. The entire drive downhill was just fabulous, and then came the monkeys! All over the place, they were leaping from the sides of the road onto the road and swinging between the treetops close to the road. Somehow they’d learnt to veer away from the vehicles and stay safe. As well, on the way down, we came across a small hillside community where right next to each other were a mosque, a temple, AND a church! It was pretty cool to see these three faiths in close proximity of and in relative harmony with each other.

Soon after, we were down in the plains and left the mountains behind us. At this point, another set of stunning sights amazed us! There were just vast plantations of coconut palms everywhere as far as the eye could see! It was like we were passing through a palm forest so dense that parts of it even blocked out the sunlight. We’d never seen this many palm trees in such a concentrated area! Quite cool! Not long after, we passed by the small town of Mettupalayam – the origin of the toy train that makes its way all the way up to Ooty, taking almost 5 hrs to do so! The rest of the journey to Coimbatore was fairly uneventful. Upon reaching Coimbatore, a large city in Tamil Nadu, we were quite hungry. Ma/Pa had spoken of a restaurant, Annapoorna, where they’d eaten while travelling down here. So the cabbie took us there and we sat down for a righteous meal. The Thali was really good, both of us having enjoyed it thoroughly and by thorough, we mean it was polished off completely! The system of having unlimited refills on absolutely anything was just too good, especially with Penny being fairly new to it still. She especially had a lot of the Rasam which she loves.

After a filling meal, we left towards Thrissur. The scenery started to be more typical of South India, with large rice paddies fringed by tall coconut palms on both sides of the road. As we went further, we passed the border of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, near an area called Palghat – where there happens to be a large wildlife reserve. We entered Kerala and immediately it started to become more verdant, green, and chockfull of coconut palms. Kerala is often called “God’s Own Country,” a reference to just how beautiful it all is – we were definitely looking forward to our stay here. Upon entering the town of Thrissur, we were hoping to just relax today and inquire on details of the Elephant March supposed to commence from here.

We checked in to the Joy Palace Hotel, in the centre of town and near the main bus stand. The hotel was, as promised online, clean and comfortable for our needs. We bid farewell to our cabbie from Ooty and gave him the sweatshirts we’d bought there, telling him to donate it to someone needy. We ordered from the hotel menu, which wasn’t too bad actually. Just watched some shows and don’t know what tomorrow holds.

January 16th, 2009

Yesterday we stayed in and did work, having no inclination to explore or wander around. Today, we went to Guruvayoor, the home of Appa’s favourite deity and temple. It was devoted to the baby Krishna, called Guruvayoorappan. We knew we could only get in wearing traditional clothing, so Penny wore her sari and a top we’d bought along our travels that went well with the sari. Karthik would have to buy a Dhoti (long piece of cloth tied around the waist – kind of like a sari, but no portion that comes above the waist). Karthik had come here with Amma/Appa back in ’05 to do his “Poonal” ceremony (the first time one wears the Brahminical sacred thread), one that ‘initiates’ a Brahmin into the fold, so to speak. He doesn’t really care for the whole caste-related stuff, but wanted to do it so Appa could be happy. It was also the first time he saw Appa shed tears, when the ceremony was over – tears of happiness, to be sure!

So, we rented a cab provided by the hotel, and the drive was a pleasant one. We stopped to pick up puff pastries, which are particularly yummy and spicy here in Kerala! Along the way, we noticed a ton of massive homes bordering on being mansions. We later found out that since a lot of Keralites have been going to the Gulf to work, they send money back home or settle down here with the big-time money they make there. A lot of them were quite colorful in addition to being huge. Other than that, the road was surrounded by the usual lot of coconut trees everywhere. As we neared Guruvayoor, the cabbie started driving fast. Apparently the temple closes at 1:30 PM and we were approaching 1 PM already. On the way to the temple, we passed by a bunch of small shops selling Dhotis, so Karthik hurried in and bought himself one as well as a cloth to wrap around himself, as men have to abandon their shirts before entering the temple! The cabbie left us and we walked barefoot along the long, wide corridor towards the temple, surrounded by shops selling all sorts of devotional stuff – garlands, sweets, toys, brass lamps, portraits and statues of the baby Krishna deity.

We neared the line-up, which was actually a long, winding maze fenced off by steel gates. Sirens went off in our heads, what with our experience back in Tirupathi. However, this area was a lot more open and less ‘prison-like.’ Nonetheless, Penny requested a guard if she could wait outside the maze as far down the line-up as was allowed. Karthik marched along with the pilgrims, moving ahead bit by bit while they were shouting praises to the deity. There were also a lot of the black-and-saffron clad pilgrims we’d seen in Tirupathi, the devotees that go to Sabari Malai – a lot of whom are often quite aggressive and rowdy (all in the name of the Lord). Still, it wasn’t as stressful and when Penny joined the line-up, it was moving faster. By sheer luck, we were all being forced to hurry up and actually exit the maze. Since it was nearing 1:30, the authorities just wanted as much of the people waiting to get inside. There also happened to be a nice lady standing in front of Penny who gave her moral support through the ordeal. She also asked if Penny was wearing a sari for the first time, seeing as the ‘tying-up’ job didn’t shout “I’ve done this many times before!” It was OK since she was asking in a harmless, non-judgmental way.

The temple itself is a very unique structure, as temples go. The roofs themselves are wooden, sloped, and curve slightly upwards at the tip, remarkably reminiscent of the style of temples in Bali! Nothing like the tall Gopurams of Tamil Nadu. As well, the area inside the temple was very open and spacious, with the main deity residing inside a small building. We passed a huge, towering, multi-level lamp that was right in front of the temple, which gets lit up at night and on special occasions. This too is unique to Kerala. Inside the temple, we were slowly moving as a crowd, going up a set of stairs, over a bridge, and down another set of stairs. Here, it was a bit like Tirupathi, even though it wasn’t all sealed off by iron gates. Also, the line-up was moving very quickly as people were being pushed inside by the temple ‘ushers.’ We entered baby Krishna’s home and caught a quick glimpse of him all decked up. We said our prayers and quickly moved on. Inside this chamber, it was less crowded and we walked around admiring the unique architecture as well as the colorful paintings adorning the walls. Karthik stopped by a priest to make an offering, so prayers can be said on our/our family’s behalf. We got some Prasad (‘blessed’ food) and we walked out of the alcove and out into the main temple area.

There were more people here, just sitting around or doing a sort of “foot over foot” walk around the temple campus. They do this to imitate the baby Krishna walking (or crawling). We walked around, checking out the many statues and temple paintings. There was also supposed to be a large weighing scale, where people sit on and donate their weight in food stuffs to the needy. It wasn’t there this time, so we just walked outside, having had our fill of the temple. We then checked out some of the shops, buying a couple of decorative brass lamps – the typical kind they light at these temples. We were now hungry, so we walked over to the car and drove to the nearby Krishna Inn. Coincidentally, this was the hotel that Karthik and Amma/Appa stayed at during their visit. We had a good Thali and also had our driver eat with us. All full, we were going home, but not before checking out the Elephant Sanctuary (or Kotta) in Guruvayoor. This is where they house, feed, and train the many elephants that are used for temple occasions and processions, usually bedecked and bejeweled in crazy decorations. We hope to still catch the beginning of the Grand Elephant March, which is supposed to start from Thrissur and make its way to Trivandrum.

At the Sanctuary, we saw a couple of large tuskers munching away near the parking lot. We were excited, as elephants are probably our next favourite animal after monkeys! After getting our tickets, we started walking around the large campus, accompanied by our driver. There are at least 60 elephants here, most of who are tied at the foot by a thick iron chain. A lot of them were just standing there, eating the large plants and shoots piled up in front of them. It was really cool to observe these large, gentle beasts, this being a stark contrast to our wild elephant encounter at the Mudumalai Wildlife Reserve. We could also differentiate between the sexes as the female elephants had visibly smaller tusks and somehow had ‘prettier’ eyes. Most of the elephants were just doing their own thing, not minding the crowd. We walked around, having seen a dozen or so elephants in this manner, after which we came upon a large tank where a couple were being bathed. The “Mahouts” or elephant trainers were right in there, the tank filled with the dirt and grime being washed off the elephants. Dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it! The elephants themselves were just enjoying themselves, lying on their sides and turning and lifting body parts, like their trunks, on their trainer’s command. We observed this for a while, and continued our walk around.

We then came upon a fairly animated fella who was swaying about, lifting his trunk, crushing the pile of plants in front of him, and being all “look at me! I’m special!” So we did, and then he just calmed down for a bit and stared at Karthik for the longest time, as if to say, “Yes, I know you’re a Ganapathi” or something like that. Heh. We posed for a pic with our friend, and then continued along our way. Here was another crazy elephant, this one just actually moving his head this way and that, potentially dancing as best as an elephant can. It was fun to watch as he was tireless in his pursuit of perfecting the Pachyderm Shuffle. Then, we thought he might actually have gone nuts and missing a few screws as well – the poor guy. Then, on our walk, we came upon another beast, this time taking large rice balls his trainer was making and deftly picking it up with his trunk and popping it in his mouth. A few of them, he knocked over and they plopped over into the water tank containing all the rice. This irritated the trainer a bit and after a bit of scolding, he stopped being clumsy. They learn fast! We could also see the massive tongue it used to fold the rice ball into his mouth. Anyhow, after observing a few more elephants, we were done our tour of the sanctuary. We hopped back into our cab and headed home. Tomorrow, we find out if there’s any Elephant March or not; so far, it doesn’t seem like it. Everyone we ask seems to be clueless as to its occurrence. We hope to find out and perhaps even catch it before we head to Cochin.

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