Two years ago I developed that January yearning for palm trees, so familiar to those of us who live in New England. Consultation of the U.S. State Department website, which provides advisories to travelers, revealed that crime, insurrection and general violence thrived in much of the tropics, but southern India – not the Garden of Eden, yet safe and welcoming. My wife had other plans so I prevailed on a friend to accompany me. Two is a good number for a trip – good company and mutual aid.
We had no definite plans other than picking a small area in the far south (we moved about 150 miles in 17 days and not often). Madurai in Tamil Nadu turned out to be a great place to start. It’s a fairly good size city, ancient and modern, focused on a temple complex that attracts pilgrims from all over India. Avoid the festivals and the many small hotels that cater to the pilgrims. Indian businessmen will have room for you. You can fly from Bombay/Mumbai saving time and energy, have your first exposure to the wonder and chaos of India in a place that is nothing like home, yet relatively free of the terrible crowding and poverty of the north. Learning menus, how to eat with your hands, the great Victorian turns of phrase from the locals you meet in restaurants, bars (men only), busses and on the street, will take several days. Tamil culture is ancient, very complicated and fascinating. Hindi is little used so English is the second language for many. Works for me.
When the heat gets to you, move on to Munnar via Palani. In February, the tropical sun and 90-degree days, their cool and dry season, are far from unbearable, but a shock to our northern systems. Munnar is tea growing mountainous territory in the western Ghats to the east of Madurai, over the Tamil Nadu/Kerala border – cool, clear, 50 degree nights – a great place for day hikes and it provides a refuge from the heat and chaos.
We also went to Cochin, a.k.a. Kochi. An ancient spice port on the Arabian sea, it gives access to the rivers and canals of Kerala, the richest state in India. How can the richest state be both Communist and devoid of industry beyond coconut products? It sends many of its men for years at a time to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States as laborers. Kerala lives in large part on the remittances. In Kerala, the language both spoken and written is completely different from that of the Tamils, but there are many English speakers. If you're totally lost and can’t find an English speaker, step into one of the many pharmacies. You will find someone who speaks English.
From Cochin, you can fly back to Bombay/Mumbai or take the train. Hint – Fares on Indian airlines often rise as the day of the flight approaches, so look into buying early even if, like myself, you hate to encumber your freedom with reservations.
This was a great trip for us, only three stops with easy bus rides in between. India is amazing. You don’t need the Taj Mahal to provide interest. We hope to do something similar next month in Karnataka.