The next morning the four of us piled into a tuk-tuk and farewelled Thanjavur at a nearby bus station, boarding a local bus bound for Madurai. Lonely Planet promised we would discover the “soul of the south” there. On the way I bought some eggplant pieces that had been deep fried in a spicy orange batter. It was delicious. The landscape changed as we travelled inland. Big rocky mountains shot up out of the ground around us. We passed through small towns less frequently.
When we arrived at the Madurai bus station on the outskirts of town (I wondered whether the placement of the depots had anything to do with taxi drivers) it was hot and crowded. We called an “Ola” (kind of like Uber in India) to take us the last few kilometres to our accommodation, the Lost Hostel. It was a bright yellow building about one kilometre from the heart of the city. Dogs lazed around in the shade out the front. The interior walls were decorated with tired travel cliches like “you have to get lost to find yourself.” On the second floor just outside the front door was a trip hazard in the form of a mountain of sandals. The hostel itself was pretty good. Cool, quiet and clean, with cooking facilities and a washing machine we made good use of.
After check-in the four of us went for a wander in search of food (and in Eloy’s case, sugar) and found a little local joint nearby that did a fantastic ‘meals’ with a tangy tomato curry I hadn’t tried before. We stuffed ourselves, then rolled back to the hostel for an afternoon shlumph. On the way we had a very strange encounter. An Indian man approached us and said “Talk to me! I’m a nice friendly local”, which (for obvious reasons) didn’t quite ring true to us. We kept walking. Suddenly, his demeanour changed dramatically. He snapped “I’m a cop, show me your passports.” Again he was clearly lying, and pretty aggravated. So we ignored him again. Finally, he yelled a profanity at us and walked away. The whole thing was quite baffling.
One thing worth recording is the smellscape of India. It is a nasally chaotic place, and everywhere in the cities either smells wonderful or awful. The air itself, from when we first stepped off the plane, was heavy and sweet. Everywhere, people burned small piles of rubbish, so often it was a smoky smell, or the heady smell of a temple stand burning incense, or petrol fumes, or else the mouthwatering aroma of sizzling spices. But anywhere off the main streets, any alleyway we wandered down, reliably had the putrid odour of stale piss. It made me gag, it was so bad. We’d later escape the nose cacophony in the Munnar mountains, where the air was crisp and clean and cool. Perhaps not as clean as it seemed, but definitely a welcome contrast.
By dinner time, neither Dan or I was especially hungry but I needed a walk, so we headed off into the night with a famous idly shop as our destination. To get to the city, we had to follow a dark road to an underpass and along an alleyway near a train station. It was a bit spooky (and the piss smell was everywhere…) There was something cosy about the Madurai centre. Maybe I was feeling more at home in the Indian bustle, but it seemed as though the city enveloped us into it easily. Even at 8.30pm, every light in every shop was on and the streets were a hive of activity. Tuk-tuks, trucks, taxis, motorbikes, cows and pedestrians all jostled for space. Women weaving flower chains sat on street corners. Men drinking sweet tea milled around roadside shrines. Hawkers laid out their faux luxury merchandise. Nobody took much notice of us,
We found the restaurant a few doors down from where Google Maps had suggested it mights be. It was very busy, filled with locals, foreigners and at least a dozen staff. The half an hour walk hadn’t made us any hungrier, and we soon realised it wasn’t really the kind of place that gave you an option when it came to serving size. Every few seconds, a new (always incredible) dish landed on our plate. It wasn’t hard to guess which dish made the place famous. The idlies were dusted with a perfect spice combination. We did our best to finish off our never-ending plateful of food, then walked home again.
The next morning was a bit of deja vu. We had amassed a group of travellers (a Belgian, an English woman in her forties, Sunni, Eloy, Dan and I) and they were all keen to check out the idly place. So, back we went. I’m not so good at doing things in big groups. I get impatient and frustrated at how slowly everything goes, and how long it takes to make decisions. I’ve never really understood the phenomenon whereby foreigners all flock together. I may just be antisocial.
The idly was just as good the second time around, and for dessert we had an ice-cream milkshake thing called a jigarthanda which tasted like sickly sweet custard. After that we walked a couple of blocks to the famous Meenakshi Amman Temple. Sunni and I had to buy scarves to cover our shoulders and Dan reluctantly checked in his backpack. It was a blisteringly hot day and the temple was insanely busy. We realised that we only had half an hour until the temple was closing for the afternoon, so decided we’d come back that evening. Dan didn’t feel too well and headed back to the hostel to do some life admin.
The rest of us went on a long walk through Madurai to the National Gandhi Museum. I loved just walking. We went through a marketplace where each stall sold all kinds of kitsch gold jewellery or colourful, crappy kids toys. I wanted to buy a couple of postcards but they only came in packs of ten. Ten shots of the same temple… I decided I’d find better ones.
We walked over a bridge and saw people washing cows on the grass below. The cows get covered in flowers and gold trinkets and multi-coloured dust for Pongal. We had to kill some time before the Gandhi Museum opened so we each bought a cold drink and found a park to sit in. It was actually a children’s play area and it was filled with little ones running wild, climbing slippery dips and falling off monkey bars. Groups of older kids approached us for selfies and we spent half an hour as celebrities.
The Brit, Victoria, told us about how she’d left her well-paying job and two adult daughters in London to travel indefinitely. I thought it was pretty awesome, and wondered how much more there was to the story. I lay back on the shady walkway and closed my eyes. I’d never imagined I’d feel so comfortable lazing around in a public park in India. When the museum was due to open we approached the beautiful building. But alas! Closed. The public holiday Pongal meant it wouldn’t open again for another two days. Feeling defeated, we piled into a tuk-tuk and zoomed back to the hostel, where it was chill-out time.
At about 5pm and I got into another tuk-tuk back to the temple. The sun was setting and huge flocks of birds were circling the gopura. We found a queue to join, but realised it snaked the whole way around the building. It looked like we were going to be there for a long while. But a staff member soon spotted us and told us the line was for the temple’s inner sanctum and reserved for Hindus only. Instead we were ushered through the main gate into the temple’s public area.
There was a huge pool in the centre, with jets of water streaming into it. The pool was surrounded by a stone grandstand, and it seemed as though a SeaWorld performance could have begun at any moment. Not even the most spiritual place in the city could escape the capitalist machine – The temple also housed a full-blown market. There was plenty beautiful to see too, though. Huge stone corridors led to cavernous halls with towering shrines. Giant pillars held up intricately painted ceilings. The lighting was superb. Every so often a local would fling themselves onto the ground and pray, finding religion among the noise. Girls lit candles in metal trays. They were funny looking cups filled with oil and long, slender wicks. I bought some gold earrings and bangles. Dan hunted unsuccessfully for a set of black wooden prayer beads.
We met up with the crew at a restaurant called Sree Sabarees, which came recommended by TripAdvisor. The vegetable biryani was a highlight, and the vegetable masala was great too. Sunni had a manchurian dish that I enjoyed so much I ordered it the following evening. The walk home in the dark seemed less spooky with a crowd. We laughed at cars that played songs as they reversed instead of beeping.
The next day was a lazy one. I’d been struck down by a bad chest cold and Dan had a bad tummy and a sore knee, so the two of us spent the day lying in the shared space of the hostel on mattresses, surfing the net. I walked to a local supermarket for snacks, and for dinner we went back to Sree Sabarees. We also found a speciality store where I bought some powdered soy milk. We’d been drinking a bit of dairy and it wasn’t helping the tummy situation.
Back at home Dan got an early night and I stayed up chatting to a British photographer named Tim, one of a group of three travellers that included a guy from Adelaide. Tim assured me our next destination, Munnar was not one to miss. And he was dead right.