East of Heart

Horizon Chasing – Stratus

Good-day from Agra, Uttar Pradesh,

Since my last trip update in Kanyakumari, I have been working my way up through central India. I was covering most of my original planned landing points until I had a terrible experience with an extended night bus under monsoon rain. In the same trip, I took the time to go over the logistics of how to arrive in Sikkim as I intended 10 days later and the “When to Go” section in my guide book finally caught my eye: “Go from October to May to avoid the rains and mountain-blocking clouds” it pretty much read. I decided to steer my trip off the monsoon path which meant moving Orissa and West Bengal destinations to the next trip list but I would still proceed to the Araku Valley and tribal regions of southern Chattisgaarh.

Logistically, from Kanyakumari I took a 3h train to Trivandrum and one day later, took a 28h train to Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh. After three days in the city of the Charminar mosque, I took an 18h bus to Visakhapatnam (“Vizag”) on the coast. The morning after, I caught a northwest-bound train through the beautiful Araku Valley, getting off at the terminus in Jagdalpur, Chattisgaarh 10h later. After three days, I took a 7 hour bus to Raipur followed by a 17h train to Bhopal and a 2h bus to Sanchi to spend a day in the plains of central Madhya Pradesh. With a 7h delayed train ride 300km north, I arrived in Gwalior the day after where I toured the fort before hopping on the next train to Agra. I will let you guess as to why I am here.

Written this way, it would seem as though my main activity has been alternating between different modes of transportation with each location operating as a check-mark, but my experiences in each place have been quite distinct. I you are willing to excuse my delay in posting, let me split this whirlwind into a couple of parts.

The arrival at Cape Comorin at 5am certainly felt quite epic. Many people who got off the night train quickly moved out of the station south towards the tip of Kanyakumari to make sunrise. Surrounded by silent families and single pilgrims, I watched the sun’s rise happen behind enormous clouds. The presence of people from around India who had come to experience the day’s beginning where three seas meet is what made it special. The ocean appears so vast and enveloping there that it is hard not to stand amazed though. The rest of my day was spent visiting the small temple and islands just offshore where a giant statue of Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar has stood stoically since 2000. The sites were a requisite of my visit but it was fascinating to be amongst so many Indians, living domestically and abroad, who were there for much same reasons as I as was, to reach land’s end.

From when my train departed for Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram) the next morning, it was obvious that the South Keralan environment was very different from that which I had seen in Tamil Nadu until then. Even in the 3h of the j0urney, monsoon rains hit and lifted several times, while a lush dark green rolling landscape of thick palm tree forests opened up outside of the window, with dark brown and vegetation-lined slow rivers undulating their way perpendicularly east up to the mountains from my side of the wagon. My day in Trivandrum was relaxed – I did laundry (in the shower with detergent powder), exchanged some traveler’s checks, visited a pretty park in hope of seeing its zoo (it was closed) and finally I took a bus south in the later afternoon to famous Kovalam beach. The red flag was up and the limb-stretching undertow of the 2m waves made it much too perilous to attempt a legitimate swim more than 10m out, but the sheer upfront power of the ocean here due to monsoon oscillations was awesome.

From my 24 hours in Trivandrum, urban Kerala appeared quite economically developed in relation to what I had already visited, with a lot of young women and men in their twenties making their way to or from classes. Perhaps a more indirect clue of a higher standard of living was the omnipresence of lottery ticket vendors which I have not seen elsewhere in India. Everywhere I ate served me warm pink water instead of the usual chilled plain kind with my food. Why was this?

I only partly found out after boarding the 28h train to Hyderabad, where I shared a booth of 8 sleeping berths with a Keralan family going back to their adopted capital city of Andhra Pradesh state. The water is tinted with an Ayurvedic substance that supposedly makes it healthier to drink. Ayurveda is a traditional medicine tied metaphysically to the five elements and born out of Kerala. The key to enjoying this long train ride was, as always, to remove my watch and sleep as much as possible. From ever-lusher backwater coconut palm forests when the train advanced north in Kerala, the landscape gradually changed once in Tamil Nadu to arid and denuded agricultural land when we reached Andhra Pradesh.

Hyderabad is a chaotic city strewn with beautiful old buildings and a very tangible Muslim identity. Although its historical bazaar areas lie in the south of the city near its main monuments, the whole place feels a little bit like a frontier town gone opulent. This city has seen the rise and fall of many empires. Lying south of large Hussain Sagar lake (in the middle of which is a giant statue of Buddha, Jain influence is strong here), Hyderabad is matched in the north by twin-city Secunderabad. Together they constitute a metropolis of over 6.5 million people. On the first full day, I enacted my usual ritual of walking non-stop through a continuous string of interesting historical neighbourhoods on the first day, culminating in a late afternoon visit to the ancient 13th century city fort of Golkonda. It was built by the Muslim Qutb Shahi Kings in anticipation of needed protection against Mughal attack forces from the north. I enjoyed wandering beyond the usual tourist perimeter, dangerously circulating between the crumbling crenelated towers to catch view of the city. I was amazed to stumble upon a elegantly inscribed old canon which had surely avoided collection due to its weight. I was also able to make it in time for sunset to the decadent and beautiful marble Hindu Birla Mandir temple, 80m above the Hussain Sagar, but cameras prohibited, I keep these images in my head. The next day, I rambled about in shorter, slower strides enjoying the Hyderabadi edginess, pride and thirst for development. I also visited the Nehru Centennial Tribal Museum for a taste of what was to come in Chhattisgarh.

The four gates leading into and out of the avenue leading up to the city’s Tour Eiffel, Charminar:

Under torrential monsoon rains, I left for Visakhapatnam on the second night. Shameful miscoordination of bus departures and lack of regard for customers by the private bus company I went with, coupled with rivers-in-the-streets elemental weather and construction on the road in the middle of the night all compounded to get me in the famously cool coastal city of Vizag 6 hours later than planned and mighty annoyed. Especially, when one of the driver’s assistants tried to cop a mandatory tip from me upon arriving. I only had time to rickshaw my way over to the train station to heckle for a ticket up the Araku Valley the next morning before going seaside to calm my pulse a bit with the inspiring marine views. By then, I was feeling that Andhra Pradesh was a little too sure of itself and its developing might for my taste. I was looking forward to leaving for the forested tribal heartlands that awaited.