It’s all about the view in Yercaud

A view from Yercaud

After spending a year on the coast and the cities of the plains and enduring the resultant heat and dust, it felt great to head back into the hills again. As the bus wound its way into the Shevaroy Hills from Salem, the air felt crisper with each of the 20 hair-pin bends that wound their way through the forested slopes. But the minute the bus screeched to a halt near the market by the Yercaud lake, I was swept over by a wave of disappointment. There was garbage strewn everywhere I looked around and loud Tamil film music was blaring from (very) loud-speakers amid the chaotic squalor to the rhythm of non-stop honking traffic. The only consolation was that the air was, if not cleaner, certainly cooler.

I walked around looking for a place to stay and after being rejected by a whole line of hotels for being a solo traveller (excuses ranged from “manager is on leave” to “where is your recommendation letter?” to “sorry, we only take tourists”), I went up to the lonely, decrepit, over-priced and depressing Tamil Nadu Hotel. It was a cheerless, inflexible and downright rude Government-run hotel. During my 3 days there, I could see only a couple of couples in the entire sprawling complex and yet, the manager insisted that the season was booming and asked me to leave if I wasn’t willing to pay the extortionate rates they were charging for their extremely basic rooms. At the end of a lot of haggling where I lost and he won, I coughed up 1100 rupees per night for a dank, mouldy, cob-webbed room with a bathroom that hadn’t been cleaned for weeks. There was a little verandah that over-looked a terraced lawn that was strewn with rum and vodka bottles and a fabulous view of the dusty, broken windows of the buildings to the left and the right.

To avoid getting too depressed at my sordid fate, I took a walk around the lake. It was supposed  to be one of the very few natural lakes in the hills of the south but one that somehow managed to pull off the stupendous feat of looking kitschier and uglier than its more popular artificial cousins in Ooty, Kodaikanal and Mount Abu. The road that sloped along the lake started off with a touristy cluster of stalls selling omelettes and chai opposite the “Deer Park” and soon became an open gutter that one had to dodge to walk further to the part where the sweet odours of a massive open garbage dump welcomed anyone who dared to walk that far.

But one had to walk that far to reach the point where the road bifurcated up into the newly constructed Botanical Gardens that lead to a series of viewpoints, first the Children’s Seat, then the Gent’s Seat and finally the Ladies’ Seat that showed spectacular views of the towns of the plains and the hills and the valleys beyond. I spent hours just lounging there, taking siestas in the afternoons, speaking with the odd tourist or two who was up for conversation, listening to Bach and Sabbath on my earphones or reading books on my Kindle. In the evenings, a chilly breeze and the cacophony of a hundred bird-calls lifted my spirits and everything that had to be endured to get here felt entirely worth the trouble.

Another view from Yercaud

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A break in Kallidaikurichi

Back in the village (Explored 12-05-2013)

Four years ago, I had travelled to my village in Tamil Nadu after more than a decade. It wasn’t the village I knew or remembered, having transformed or “developed” into something of a shanty-town over the years. The clear waters of the Tambaraparani river, the source of drinking water for much of this region where people used to bathe and swim, was an unrecognizably muddy and polluted mush that was being used to wash a line of trucks. The main road, whose structure remains intact from the days of the Chola kings who built it, was now a noisy, honking mess.

Nevertheless, after a few weeks of experimenting with extreme low budget travel, where many a room was shared with the roaches and the rats, it felt good to be back with my grand-parents in their ancestral house. One evening, we went for a ride to the fields we owned near Singampatti. After wandering for a couple of hours, watching the many herons and egrets and the odd migratory crane gliding over the paddies, I found it to be a perfectly rewarding sort of de-tox from the troubles and hassles of backpacking. And boy, what a view!

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Tracking Spirituality in Thiruvannamalai

“I like him the best of all the old gurus but I don’t need him”, bellows an old American man to a young German girl at the chai shop opposite the Ashram. At Shanti Café, a bearded man dressed like a rabbi is giving a sermon to a group of faithful backpackers about the beauty of mundanity and the triumph of positivity over negativity. One young boy with beaded dreadlocks has the temerity to point out the poverty and garbage that he saw everywhere in India and the “rabbi” cuts him short vehemently saying, “Beauty! It’s all beauty! You are ugly, everything else is beauty! Look at the garbage like you would look at rose petals and smell it thinking you’re smelling expensive perfume and you’ll know it’s all beautiful! It’s all in your head!” At the Mango Tree café, a young Japanese woman is clutching a book by Paul Brunton called “Inner Reality” and explaining her newfound spiritual connections to a tall Indian man with curly hair who’s dressed like a Rasta. “I feel like, I’m reborn, you know? In Yoga, guruji says…” In the table next to them, there’s a raging debate going on about materialism, “At the end of the day, isn’t money just a piece of paper with numbers on it?”

Thiruvannamalai, the chaotic temple town with its holy hill (they call it Mount Arunachala but since it’s only 800 meters high, calling it a “mountain” seems a stretch), a massive temple complex and the renowned Ramana Ashram was guru-made for these new-agey neo-spiritual scenes. I hadn’t planned to come here. After 7 days of croissants and hot coffee at Pondicherry, I knew I wanted to leave but didn’t know where to go. I decided to go to the bus-stand and take the first bus that went anywhere. That bus went to Thiruvannamalai.

After wandering for a bit, I found a room at the Arunachala Inn, which was right next to the big temple. For a pilgrim lodge, it was surprisingly clean and well-appointed. The speakers in the hallway sang the Tibetan Buddhist hymn “Om Mani Padme Hum” which made me go WTF every time I entered or left my room. It also brought back nostalgic memories of Spiti, Ladakh, Sikkim and Tawang. In the blistering heat and choking traffic of the Tamilian plains, a part of me wished I was up in the mountains of the North staring at endless spaces at high altitudes.

I wasn’t allowed inside the big temple because of irrational rules that don’t let people wearing shorts go inside (when asked to point out where such rules are stated in Hinduism’s labyrinthine scriptures, I only received befuddled, angry reactions and I knew I had to leave when both a watchman and a priest pointed wrathfully at the exit and yelled “Get out!”) So I went to the Ramana Ashram, run by the same religion as the temple, where I was allowed to walk around wearing the same clothes that so scandalized the people at the temple.

The area around the Ramana Ashram was a little bubble of peace and quiet amidst the chaos of the rest of Thiruvannamalai.  With its sea of white faces, a peaceful vibe that feels a world away from the India most Indians live in and all the religious paraphernalia and the orientalism that go with these, it was a no-brainer that a backpacker scene was expanding here. There’s yoga, organic café’s, spiritual bookshops, Western-oriented menu’s serving everything from pancakes to pastas, Indian dishes with their spice quotient tuned down to zero, an ashram that’s internationally renowned and all the utopian and idealistic conversations that go with these. It’s no different from the scenes I had encountered in Rishikesh or Pushkar or Varanasi and after just a couple of hot and sweaty days here, attacked by the hostile, narrow-minded people of the temple on one side and the fake Western-style infatuated spiritualism on the other, I knew I had enough. It was time to leave for the hills where the pleasures are simpler, the altitude is higher, the air is cooler and life, easier to cherish.

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Gluttony in Pondicherry

One of the pleasures of coming to Pondicherry is hopping from one café to the next, either sipping a lovingly brewed cup of coffee or munching a sublime croissant that melts in your mouth or gorging on freshly made pancakes. I should say, though, that the best food I had here was not in a fancy café but at the busy South Indian restaurant Surguru. Some days, especially on week-ends, it gets so packed, there’s a long queue waiting to get in, always a good sign. Now, I have had my fair share of dosas, “meals” (the South Indian version of the unlimited thali), idli’s, parottas and filter coffees but nothing quite compares to the quality you get here. Unlike the infamous Saravana Bhavan, the food isn’t oily, looks hygienic and is as tasty as Tam food gets. Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s a list of places where I enjoyed other kinds of food –

Baker Street – Being impossibly absent-minded about most things in life, I have lost many an expensive item on the road. A mobile in Sri Lanka, another in Goa, a portable stove in Zanskar, spectacles in Vientiane, a bag in Chiang Rai, countless room keys and dozens of other very important things. If it wasn’t for the friendly and honest people at Baker Street, I would have added a Kindle to the list. So, thank you, people who run Baker Street, for keeping my Kindle safe and returning it back to me. On the food front, you get great croissants, quiches, salads and all manner of French-like things here. I heard it’s very crowded usually but it was empty both times I went. The desserts were positively yum too, especially the flan and the eclairs. Nice place to put on a few kilos.

A quiche and a croissant in Pondicherry

Arokya – Although I find much of what passes for “organic” tasteless and insipid, I do have a tendency to go for healthy sounding meals every once in a while. You would think a place like Pondicherry, the land of ashrams, yoga and Auroville would have more of these but Arokya is a pioneer, being the only organic-themed restaurant in Pondy (according to Sundar who runs it) and I’m very happy to say that they make healthy food without making you feel like you’re eating tasteless gruel. The veggie soup wasn’t great but the main course was delicious. The carrot paniharam which was accompanied by sambar and chutney was delightful and so was the nine-grain chappathi that came with a helping of vegetable kurma. I washed it all down with a mixed fruit juice that was ever so slightly sweetened with sugarcane.

Zuka – Everything here screams chocolate and how! Zuka is a cosy little café that values quality over quantity and although my hot chocolate felt more like having a shot of whisky than a mug of beer, it was still the best hot chocolate that I can remember having in a long time. The last one was in the (also) ex-French colonial town of Luang Prabang. The hot chocolate here comes with bits of chocolate in little chocolate thimbles so you can make your drink more chocolatey. Did I mention they do good chocolate here?

Hot chocolate at Zuka

Le Café – This one wins purely for the location on the promenade facing the sea, which makes it possibly the most popular café in the city. Sip on well-brewed filter coffee with the crowds and enjoy the fresh sea breeze from the Bay of Bengal. It’s open 24 hours, so perfect for the ones who wake up at 5 in the morning and go jogging on the Promenade.

Kasha ki Aasha – A rooftop place run by local ladies that makes piping hot pancakes that are a world away from the imitation banana/honey pancakes you get on the backpacker trail made by Nepali cooks. I have never been to France but the Frenchman who lives next to me at my guest house swears it’s as authentic as it gets. The coffee is fantastic too, served with a lot of love and a few smiles. It’s the perfect place to spend a hot afternoon reading a book and if you don’t have a book, there’s free wi-fi to make sure you don’t get too bored.

Coffee at Kasha ki Aasha

Cafe Xtasi – If Pizza is what you crave for, this is where you should go. This place has a menu with a whopping 7 pages of pizzas with just about every permutation, combination and ingredient that you can think of. The breads come out of a wood-fired oven that lies outside the air-conditioned dining area in public view so you know what you’re getting is the real thing.

If anyone’s been to Pondicherry and has more suggestions, do let me know! I’m here and always willing to eat.

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