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Embedded Photos: 1.Recieving Darshan, Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu 2.Ekambaranathar's Mango Tree, Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu 3-4.Ekambaranathar, Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu 5.Elephant Blessing, Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu 6-8.Elephant Riding, Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu 9.Silk Samples, Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu 10.Devarajaswami, Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu 11.Pancha Pandava Ratha, Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu 12.Shore Temple, Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu 13.Wet Saris, Tamil Nadu
Two Years & Twice Around the World...  

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November 25. CHENNAI "An Indian Temple Tour" We arrived at the TTDC office early and found people pooling up in the lobby.  The only other foreigners were an older Italian couple and a young German guy.   We chatted with themKanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, India briefly while we waited for the buses to arrive, which were running a bit late, then got split up in the seating arrangements.  

Our itinerary for the day was packed, starting with a visit to Kanchipuram, a small city about 50 kilometers from Chennai.   It is famous for its Hindu shrines and quality silk production.  We stopped for a quick Indian breakfast along the way before making our first visit of the day to the Sri Ekambaranathar Temple where the guide walked us around the main features of the temple.  We had left our shoes on the bus and walked in our socks.  The temple had striking white washed gopuras and stood on a huge area of some 12-hectares but the temple itself felt much smaller than the others that we had visited.  Only Hindus could enter the main shrine but we also visited a smaller shrine on our walk around the interior where foreigners were permitted to enter and receive darshan (a blessing).  We made a queue around the interior of the tiny shrine and as we exited the priest cupped a ceremonial bowl over our heads and marked Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, Indiaour foreheads with a white dot.  Like the others in our group I dropped a donation in the dish as I received my darshan but as I stepped outside a caretaker from the temple stopped me, pointing to the donation dish.  I was confused and indicated that I had left a donation.  He gave me a suspicious eye which put me off the whole experience.  Perhaps he thought I should have given more money or maybe he didn't see me put my donation in the dish.  Either way he acted more like a night club bouncer than a temple caretaker. It is all about the money.  The courtyard of the temple featured a supposedly 3500 year old Mango tree with four branches, one for each of the four Vedas (sacred Hindu texts). 

Back on the bus there wasn't even time to put our shoes back on before we were getting off again at the Sankaramandam Monastery, where a famous Hindu sage was buried.  He died in 1994 at the age of 101.  This was a more meaningful visit for the Hindu members of our tour since we couldn't go inside and the buildings weren't very noteworthy in themselves.  We stayed in the courtyard and chatted with our guide.  At the entrance there were two monastery elephants with ornate designs painted around their faces and down their snouts.  For a fee a man was having the elephants bless people with their trunks.  For a larger fee he offered to let one of us sit on one of the elephants. I couldn't resist.  For a $1 donation the manKanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, India helped me climb up the elephant's right leg.  As the elephant lifted its leg I hoisted myself up and onto its rather prickly back.   He had the elephant walk around a bit, giving ample photo opportunities, before he had the animal lay down so I could slip off the side.  Then the elephant blessed me with its trunk by laying it over the top of my head.  Rob got a blessing as well.  

From Sankaramandam we boarded our bus again and were shuttled off to the silk shops where they showed a small room full of looms and tried to sell us silk saris and pillow covers.  The silk was beautiful.  I had read that every woman wanted a sari from Kanchipuram for her wedding.  We went with a few pillow cases but I almost regretted our purchase after seeing some of the saris.  I didn't know what I would do with one but the weaving in the saris was even more extensive than the pillow cases.  The man who owned the shop said he had another shop near Los Angeles but when we tried to ask where he was evasive.  He probably did have a shop near LA but didn't want to discourage us from buying something right then and there.

After the silk shops we made one final stop in Kanchipuram at the Devarajaswami Temple.  It seemed that even our guide was getting tired of temples because he let us go on our own to this one.  Instead of trying to see the whole thing we just concentrated on an elaborately carved marriage hall that stood to the left of the entrance.  It charged a small fee to enter and tried to tag a guide along but we resisted.  We'd gotten enouKanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, Indiagh temple information and just wanted to enjoy the carved pillars.  Rob and I separated and wandered at our leisure.  Out of the corner of my eye I started to notice a family of people staring at me.  They eventually approached me and asked where I was from.  I had grown to hate that question but they were just being friendly so  I dropped my guard and chatted with them for a few minutes.  The couple was traveling with their young daughter and had been on a pilgrimage to Tirumala.  Part of the pilgrimage was that people donated their hair to the god so the young girl's head was shaved entirely bald, of which she was rather proud.  I didn't understand where they were from but probably not a place that got many tourists or they wouldn't have been so interested in me.  

From Kanchipuram we had a bit of a drive to Mamallapuram, about 50 km south of Chennai.  Everyone fell asleep on the bus, including us, and our day wasn't even half over! Our first stop in Mamallapuram was the Pancha Pandava Rathas, a set of free standing carved stone structures that dated from 630-670 AD.  The sculptures depicted life-sized animals as well as the five chariots of the Pandavas and all were carved from either one large rock or as many as three.  It was around midday so the sun was directly over head and our guide stopped us directly in the sun to lecture us on the site.  I scooted off into the shade which made him stop and give me a strange look.  I motioned that I would burn from the sun.  Anyway, I hadn't found his lectures that easy to understand.  His accent was quite strong.  After the lecture we had a few minutes to wander around the carvings.  Before boarding theKanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, India bus we went to grab a cola which caused a tout to latch on.  His presence upped the price of our cola so we went to the next stand.  Our guide just laughed but the price was printed on the bottles in India so there wasn't much use over-charging.  

From the Pancha Pandava Rathas we visited the highlight of our daylong tour, the UNESCO protected Shore Temple, a stone temple that dated from the early eighth century and said to be the earliest stone-built temple in south India.   From photos that we had seen, the temple once stood right along the shore but has since been encased in a kind of garden setting with a metal fence between it and the ocean.  It couldn't help but detract from the temple's atmosphere.  I was beginning to think I should hurry up and get to a bunch of other places in the world before UNESCO gets their hands on it.  Preserving these monuments is important but why did they have to make them look like a city park in some western country.  Touts followed us to and from the bus selling souvenirs but that was the most hassling we'd had all day long, which wasn't bad. 

Mamallapuram had one final treasure for us to visit but our tour seemed to be running late so they would only drive the bus up in front of the massive bas-relief carvings but wouldn't let us get out.  There were other monuments tucked around that area as well but that is where our action-packed tour failed us.  Instead they rushed us off to lunch at a restaurant north of Mamallapuram.  At least the food was pretty good.  We sat with the Italian couple.  He had been to Tamil Nadu eight years earlier and had taken the very same tour.  He said it hadn't changed a bit!

From lunch they shuttled us over to a boat dock along a large river.  There everyone crammed into two motor boats and putted around the river for a bout fifteen minutes before comKanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, IndiaKanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, India-Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, Indiaing back to the dock.  That was it.  We opted to sit that one out.  The boats looked like they were on the verge of tipping over they were so full.  Instead we just watched while we had a small coffee from the nearby Nescafe machine.  Then, as with many things in life, the best was saved for last. Our itinerary listed the VGP Golden Beach as our final stop, which turned out to be an incredibly cheesy amusement park.  The tour paid our entrance fee but everything inside seemed to cost extra so we ended up just walking around and taking it all in. Just inside the gate we joined the rest of our tour in watching "Statue Man", a live man pretending to be a statue, but as our group spread out the park turned out to be practically empty.  There was a small roller coaster, the big swinging boat ride, bumper cars, and things that twisted and turned or flung you into the air.  The snack stands were pretty much dead.  But, it was on a beach.  When we reached the far side of the park where the pavement turned to sand we foundKanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, India many of our tour group romping in the surf, in their clothes!  I was quite a site, all of those wet saris, just like some Indian movie.  And, they had to sit in their wet clothes all of the way back to Chennai.

Since the bus entered Chennai from the south we asked to be dropped off closer to our hotel.  They let us off at the main highway intersection with the road our hotel was on but it actually wasn't all that close.  It still took a long tuk tuk ride to reach the hotel.  With such a long day we didn't have any energy to go far for dinner so we dodged traffic along the underpass to reach Don Pepe's, a Mexican restaurant across from the Sheraton.  We were always skeptical of Mexican food so far away from Mexico but Don Pepe's was a pleasant surprise.  We were greeted at the door by a little man wearing a Mexican outfit.  He was only about as high as the door handle but in those clothes he somehow filled that image of Don Pepe to a tee.  The Rough Guide called Don Pepe's "Euro-Mex" but it tasted a lot like Tex-Mex to me and was really very good - fresh guacamole and everything.  We asked them how their chef learned to make such good Mexican food and we were told that he had worked at a Mexican restaurant in Dubai.  Too bad we hadn't know there was such good MexicanKanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, India food in Dubai!  It was Thanksgiving back in the U.S. but we were in South India eating Mexican food.  

November 26. CHENNAI We had plans to go visit the film studio on the outskirts of Chennai but our day just never got that far.  The hotel restaurant was, of course, strictly vegetarian and didn't even serve eggs so we had to venture out to find something to eat.  We also were overdue with our email update and it was Thanksgiving back home so we decided we should call home.  The cities seemed to swarm with telephone places when you didn't need one but naturally they were scarce when you did need one.  We had to walk several long blocks before we found a place that could let us make an international call, and there was a wait.  By the time we had done all of that walking and telephone talking we were good and hungry.  Walking back to our hotel we found a small bakery with some odd looking pastries.  We bought a few and had them boxed up to go.  They didn't serve any juice or coffee at the bakery so we walked around the corner to a busy restaurant and asked if we could order coffee and eat our breakfast there.  They gave us a head bobble and we took a table at the back.  We were both getting a bit testy at this pointMamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, India from all of the walking in the heat and the sick feeling you get from breathing too many car fumes on an empty stomach .  I felt guilty taking up a table and not ordering any food.  Rob just wanted to eat something.  We were snapping at each other and just not getting along.  For all that we had been through it hadn't happened that often but I finally just got and went back to the hotel.  When he returned we sorted out our differences and decided we both needed a day to decompress.  Our hotel room was very comfortable and we had been going pretty much non-stop for several days. 

We spent the rest of the morning and afternoon in our room, just watching TV and resting.  Room service from the hotel had some really good vadai, idly, and appams that filled us up for lunch.  As we started to look at our schedule we realized that we needed to get our tickets back to Ernakulum and if we wanted to go to Tirumala we had to go the following day and needed tickets for that trip as well.  We had a tuk tuk take us all of the way to the Central train station.  It was a fight to get help from the information desk because there was no concept of a line.  We were standing in front of the guy, talking to him, Shore Temple, Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, Indiaand people would just walk up and try to force themselves in front of us.  With two of us we created a small barricade and snapped at people who tried to cut in front of us.  The guy at the desk wasn't much help either since he would help people randomly when he could see that we had been waiting.  When a three guys started to push up against us we pushed back and told them to wait.  The guy at the information desk just said "They don't know any better."  Well maybe HE should have known better since he could have controlled the situation.  It was all so much more work than it had to be.  It was one of those situations that makes you realize there can be such a gap between cultures that basic concepts of rudeness don't even translate.  When we finally got some help we were relieved to find out that there was a foreigner ticket window where we could buy tickets.  That was a first.  

The foreigner ticket office was in the other part of the station, upstairs, enclosed in a small windowed office.  Someone was being helped so we waited in the rows of chairs that were lined up in front of the desk.  We were a bit concerned that they wouldn't help us because we didn't have our passports on us but she didn't seem too concerned.  I guess it was prettyGold Beach, Tamil Nadu, India obvious that we were foreigners. In almost no time at all she generated our tickets to Ernakulum and got us seats on the express train to Tirumala the following morning.  From the train station we went directly back to the Don Pepe's for dinner. 

SRI LANKA Colombo Oct 25 Oct 26 Oct 27-29 Nuwara Eliya Oct 30 Oct 31 Kandy Nov 1-5 (1) Nov 1-5 (II) Polonnaruwa Nov 6 Sigiriya & Dambulla Nov 7 Colombo Nov 8

INDIA Ft.Cochin Nov 9-15 (I) Nov 9-15 (II) Nov 16 Nov 17-18 Madurai Nov 19 Nov 20 Tiruchirapalli Nov 21 Nov 22 Nov 23 Chennai Nov 24 Nov 25-26 Nov 27-28 Ft.Cochin Nov 29 Lakshadweep Nov 30-Dec 4 (I) Nov 30-Dec 4 (II) Trans-India Train Dec 5-7 (I) Dec 5-7 (II) Siliguri Dec 8 Darjeeling Dec 9 Dec 10-13 Dec 14 Sikkim Dec 15 Dec 16-20 Dec 21-23 Dec 24 Dec 25 Darjeeling Dec 26 Dec 27-Jan 2 Siliguri Jan 3 Jaigon (Bhutan) Jan 4 Kolkata Jan 5-6

THAILAND Bangkok Jan 6-13 (I) Jan 6-13 (II) Jan 6-13 (III)