India is one of those places I dream to visit one day, but I am not sure I will ever get to. I have read a lot about this fabulous country and I know it’s just a drop in a sea of knowledge about a huge country and a great civilization. In the meantime my friend Erica Hoffer is at her second visit to India, and this time she has traveled to the South of the sub-continent. Here are her travel notes and a few of the photos she made during her trip.

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I cannot explain why I was always so attracted by India. Maybe the gracious silhouettes of the sari-dressed women, the orgy of strong colors, the luxuriant vegetation, the wealth of smells (not all pleasant though) and tastes quite unusual for our taste buds, all these gave, in my eyes, an irresistible aura to this country (subcontinent). Fascination with India is strong among Israeli youngsters. According to Israeli and Indian officials, between 40,000 and 60,000 young Israelis have either permanently moved or established long-term residence in India.

Attracted and curious to check by myself what might be the source of this attraction I arranged for myself and three companions an “independent’” trip to South India. “Independent” means not organized with group, guide and bus but organized by us with public transportation or driver+car. Why south and not the more travelled north? It is believed that south India is less poor, beggars less persistent, not many people living on the street. Possible, I could not compare.

So, after some research in many on-line tourist guides, blogs and brochures and frantic emailing with Kamu, the owner of a company providing cars with driver, highly recommended by folks from the “Lametayel” site I succeeded to plan a two week tour to include visits to major temples in Tamil Nadu, towns, places of natural beauty. We started our trip in Chennai (Madras), went south in Tamil Nadu to visit Mahabalipuram, Pondicherry, Tanjavur, Madurai for temples. Then the Arabian Sea resort of Varkala, the Backwater canals of Kerala, Cochin for its Jewish connection, Munar and Otti for the gorgeous sights of tea plantations and Mysore famous for the Palace, the silks, spices, sandalwood. We were to return to Mumbai from Bengalore where our trip with car and driver was to end.

I will not make her a day to day report of this trip, but rather tell about the things that impressed me most, both in a positive and also in a negative way

Strong for the senses: colors, smells. Here everything is colorful. Have a look at the saris: first picture at the caves in Mahabalipuram

Above: wedding at the Madurai temple:

Below: Colored incense at the Mysore market:

Waiting in line at the Mysore temple to receive holy water from the priest:

Smells:

Spices: cumin, cardamom, curry are prevalent. But garbage is everywhere: along the roads, in every free space. I am not sure that removing garbage is at all possible in a country of….million. Somehow it does not seem to disturb. Here, for example at the entrance of a very famous temple:

Among praying people:

Sometimes we were surprised to enter bad smelling hotel lobbies but to find exceptional nice rooms. So, in India, do not judge a place according to its smell!!

The street

Let’s state one simple fact: beside in big cities, there are no sidewalks in Indian cities.

What one calls street is a paved portion on which cars, buses, rikshas, trucks, bicycles, cows and people compete. Priority is achieved by honking; the louder is that to whom priority is given. On both sides of this chaotic moving portion there are broad strips of earth covered by parked cars and garbage. People move on the narrow interface between the earth strip and the moving portion. It is easier to go on the paved side and usually one does not get hit by a vehicle. Given the chaotic movement on the pavement (we found ourselves many times facing cars coming from the opposite direction), the number of accidents we encountered was very low.

Here are two photos taken from our car in Mahabalibupuram:

In big cities there are sidewalks, but they are either occupied by street vendors or in very bad condition.

For example in Mumbai, in the fashionable Colaba neighborhood:

There are reparations though:

But it does not stay for long:

Sometimes, it is not easy to to walk on sidewalks. Then you have to buy:

Vegetation is lush and this is what makes the places so attractive.

For example the garden of a hotel in Mahabalibupuram:

Or the picturesque Backwater canals in Kerala:

The Indians

Trying as much as possible to avoid generalizations, one cannot deny the overall impression of gentle, willing to help, good humored people. Of course there where taxi drivers who cheated, but the majority of locals we dealt with were hard-working and extremely pleasant persons.

We were mostly impressed by our driver, Khartik , who was both our mother and

father and helped each time when something happened to one of us. His driving skills were unbelievable.

When talking with Indians we observed they did a quite unusual movement of their head (inclining the head to both sides, a few times to each direction). First we sought it must be a negative answer to our question, but then it appeared like a sign they were thinking what answer to give.

Places that impressed me most:

The Meenakshi Temple in Madurai

The tea plantations in Munar. I could not believe how beautiful tea plantations can be:

The old synagogue in Kochin:

The Palace in Mysore:

The palace that belonged to the Wodeyar kings was first built in the 14th century. It was demolished and constructed multiple times. The current palace construction was completed in 1912 and expanded later around 1940.

A virtual tour of the whole palace can be found at

http://www.mysorepalace.tv/360_Eng/index.html

Having in view the strict prohibition of taking pictures inside the palace, this site provides the only opportunity to see the interior of the palace.

We did not see the illuminated palace as shown above; the illumination is only on Sundays, but I place the photo as a closing view of glorious India.