India is a country that grows on you. That can be a positive and a negative but for us, it meant both. As we left Chennai, we felt safe in the knowledge that we knew India now, we’d been there a week so we were total experts and knew exactly what to expect. WRONG.
As we moved towards the southernmost tip of India we stopped off in Madurai for a few days of luxury and normality. We knew the service in India could be excellent once you put your money where your mouth is but we were still awestruck with the exceptional customer service laid on at our disposal.
We stayed at the JC Residency in Madurai, a four star rated hotel with prices ranging from £30-£70 per night which is quite a lot for India and for a backpacker but it was definitely worth it! After a 17 hour night train from Chennai, with half the night sleeping with one eye open and the other clinging to your bed for dear life as the train stormed through the countryside, we finally reached our destination in the early hours of the morning. We managed to get to the hotel unscathed and unharassed but still five hours too early for check-in. Nevertheless, the welcoming staff carried our backpacks through the marble corridors and guided us to our room.
Air conditioning was the first magical feeling that lifted us off our feet then we slumped into the abyss of a huge super king sized smothering you in glorious silk. After an eternal sleep we awoke to take a look round our new surroundings; oak furniture, flat screen tv, dressing gowns and slipped as well as the almighty air conditioning that we craved so much during our travels. We spent the day relaxing by the pool and soaking up the sun, taking a break from the trials of travelling. It was a real haven yet just outside the large iron gates was the same dusty floor and rubbish littered streets that have become India’s trademark.
In surroundings of such elegance, beauty and sophistication, the rest of the country was still steeped in a hazy dream of what could have been and what it could become. This was true of many parts of India, even the much coveted Taj Hotel in Mumbai which we will talk about at a later date. Still this is why we loved India, we didn’t come for the luxury, we came for the experience, and soon ventured out to see what Madurai was all about.
We walked a few hundred yards to a local restaurant and were warmly welcomed by a group of Indian women who had clearly never seen tourists before from outside their own nation. After a few smiles we ordered some biryani which came out on a giant banana leaf smothered in dahl. No fancy china, no silver service and not even any cutlery, but we loved it! We chomped our way through the delicious rice dish and gained a few pitiful smiles as the staff watched us struggling to eat the last grains of rice with our fingertips.
Walking through the streets in this small but captivating town, we started to enjoy India again. We decided to visit the Sri Meenakshi temple and were blown away by the incredible colours spread throughout this huge complex. We actually arrived on a Hindu holiday to the temple which meant it was crowded with people but we still had a fantastic time. India is overcrowded in the majority of places you visit so you will soon become used to thinking you live on the Central Line with no personal space and extreme levels of sweat.
We had a great day exploring the temple, however, the whole experience was violated as we were leaving this wonderful arena of serenity. Right by the front entrance, was a huge elephant that was chained by the ankles and being beaten with a man and a stick to collect money from visitors with it’s trunk. We were shocked. Of course the many Indian tourists, blinded by their faith in religion were helplessly throwing themselves at the animal in a bid to be the next person to have their money snatched from there palms. As each person wielded away in delight, they openly chose to ignore the fact that the money was being pocketed by the evil man behind the elephant with the stick.
As we approached closer, we noticed the elephant was rocking back and forth and clearly agitated and depressed. This was a living creature, clearly torn from its home and family and forced into working for a man in a confined space for such a large and magnificent animal. Kieran is fluent in Punjabi and can converse in Hindi so he confronted the man and questioned him on how putting this poor animal through extreme suffering is of any use to anyone. When told that these animals were near extinction because of treacherous acts such as these, the man merely shrugged and continued to count his money.
We understand religion can bring people hope, peace and sometimes happiness, but it can also bring insanity, depression and oppression. After working in Thailand to help protect elephants, we were devastated to see that in the 21st century people could still not look beyond their phone screens and use their eyes to see that this was an animal that was severely mistreated for their pleasure.
Moving on from the wondrous JC Residency, we headed further south to Kanyakumari, probably one of the worst destinations of our travels and one place that we will certainly never be heading back to.
Arriving in the town, we had high hopes of a reasonably developed area on the seaside with various restaurants and sights to see including the Thiruvalluvar Statue, a 40m sculpture of a famous Tamil poet. With many shops and a wide range of hotels, we reclined back into our rhythm of budgeting and picked out a reasonably priced hotel which was relatively close to the sea front.
After checking into to our room, our trip to India took a downward spiral that seemed to have no end in sight. The hotel was filthy, covered in dead flies and the staff were about as useful as sunglasses at night. We decided to explore our surroundings by taking a walk to the ‘beach’ to brighten our spirits but stepping outside the hotel did nothing to quell our worries. The ‘beach’ was gross and full of people washing, urinating and even to our horror, defecating. It was an incredibly poor area and many people had clearly never seen a Caucasian person before. Being a mixed raced couple travelling, we’ve had a lot of stares, but the people of Kanyakumari were something else!
People would openly stare and point at us as we walked through the streets with numerous others expressing their disapproval with unkind words in an unfamiliar language. The whole place was filthy and covered in litter, something of a theme in India but this place was next level. Walking through the town you almost felt like you was inhaling diseases.
Despite all this, we didn’t let these uneducated and ill-mannered people stop us from exploring the town. There are some wonderfully built churches in the region, while the statue and Vivekananda Rock are, being brutally honest, in our opinion are nothing more than okay and we would not recommend any western traveller to visit this region.
India is a beautiful country, with incredible sights and wonderful people, however, Kanyakumari, just seemed like one of those places you find in most countries every once in a while that you just felt like you should have avoided. If this blog has dampened your spirits a bit, we don’t apologise as we believe in giving you an honest opinion, and honestly, we loved India, stick around to see Part 3 of our Asian adventure to find out why.