Our seats on the waiting list for the train from Varkala to Kanyakumari did indeed clear as the lady at the train station had promised. It’s an interesting thought, when we bought our tickets, the train was so full that we were on a wait list.
Our First Indian Train – EMPTY!
When we got on the train at the near deserted Varkala station our 3AC (three tier, air conditioned) carriage was empty apart from us and one guy.
And so began our relationship with Indian trains. (but lots more on that later).
The landscape is green and tropical on the way south, for we are heading to the southern most point in India. We’ll arrive there at the end of a festival called Pongol.
Pongol is a Tamil harvest festival, celebrated over 4 days, usually mid January. This corresponds to the last day of the Tamil month of Maargazhi to the third day of the Tamil month of Thai. Pongol is celebrated in Tamil Nadu, the Indian Union Territory of Pondicherry, Sri Lanka and where Tamils live worldwide. The celebration is appreciation to the Sun God for providing the energy for agriculture. As such, the first rice of the season is boiled and consecrated to the Sun.
Arriving during or just after any sort of festival in India is not for the fainthearted, although the festival of Navaratri – the Indian Festival of dolls, celebrated too here in Tamil Nadu is a great festival to experience – especially if you’re female!
There are lots of people, all usually domestic tourists.
All knowing what they are doing and where they are going and you as a westerner will stick out like a sore thumb.
Here in deepest Tamil Nadu it wasn’t a pleasant experience.
And so, less than three weeks into India, I had my first “I don’t like this” moment.
Or rather, there were several moments.
So I can’t claim that my visit to Kanyakumari was nice, it wasn’t awe inspiring,
I didn’t find myself, or meditate at the memorial to Swami Vivekananda. I didn’t revel in the atmosphere. Mostly I shuddered and wanted to be somewhere else.
I’d come to India with such high hopes, I would LOVE the country, I would embrace the lifestyle, it would be my favorite country.
In truth, it’s like everyone tells you, if you don’t run screaming from her in the first 48 hours, then you’ll have great days. You’ll have good days and you’ll have really bad days.
You’ll learn to shut down what part of your brain needs shutting down in order to cope. You’ll grit your teeth and get on with it.
You’ll learn to appreciate the good and great days even more.
Our hotel was optimistically described as “behind the bus station”. This was of little use to us, as we were arriving at the train station.
Eventually we found it, a little further away and higher up the hill, but with a balcony and air conditioning it made up for it. I recommend it. The Vedanta Wake Up. Lots of space. No internet when we were there, but sunrise from the balcony and a shower.
We’re in Kanyakumari because it’s here that three oceans meet – the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.
We’ll be able to see the sunrise and the sunset from the same location. We’re here, also to go out to the Vivekananda Rock Memorial on a small island just offshore.
Vivekananda was a Hindu monk born Narendra Nath Datta, in 1863 to an aristocratic Bengali family in Calcutta. A chief disciple of the 19th-century saint Ramakrishna, he was a key figure in the introduction of Vedanta and Yoga to the western world. He also helped bring Hinduism to the status of a major world religion.
He toured India extensively and then the United States, where he represented India at the 1893 Parliament of the World Religions. His introduction of Hinduism in his best known speech began, “Sisters and brothers of America”
Vivekananda is said to have attained enlightenment on the rock, hence the memorial.
The reality is a little different to what we were expecting. Sunset is little more than the sun descending into a gloomy fog. We watch it from Beach Road, on a paved area that is covered in as much excrement as there is paving.
We see one other westerner in the two days we are here, and that’s in the only bar we can find. It’s a dingy, dark, smelly place in the bowels of the Seaview hotel, and we join him to eat in the surprisingly good restaurant upstairs.
The remnants of Pongol (and a long weekend) have left a lot of domestic tourists though, and the line to get tickets to the small ferry boat that takes you out to the Vivekananda Rock Memorial is by a conservative estimate 3 hours long and my desire to visit isn’t THAT great.
We walk around the ocean front, take a look at the plethora of market stalls but are not in the market for a bright pink T shirt or strings of shells.
There are knitted sweaters too, in case this is too chilly for you. And there’s litter and garbage everywhere. The guy who was sat leaning against the wall when we walked past him this morning is now laid face down half on the side of the road now, seemingly dead drunk. Or just dead. He repeats it the following day, so we figure he knows what he’s doing. Everyone else steps around him too.
And everywhere the men stare. It’s an interesting culture shock. In Western Europe, in America, staring is rude. Here staring is the norm. It’s an unpleasant norm. I feel as though they’re staring right into me. And it’s constant. At first I stare back, unrepentant at my sin of being a white female with blonde hair. I’m wearing long trousers and a sensible Tshirt despite the heat. After a while, while always fully aware, I just ignore them.
We’ve come to Kanyakumari also to pay our respects to those who lost their lives in the 2004 Tsunami, like we did in Peraliya, Sri Lanka.
Here the Tsunami memorial is in a sad state. The garden unkempt, the structure slightly askew, most of it roped off. It is a sign of things to come – in need of repair, or not quite finished, as though no one quite cares enough.
We do see the sunrise though, from this most southern point of India, although it’s as disappointing as the sunset.
It’s time to get out of here. And we can’t wait for the train. We cash in our tickets (it costs us 25% of our ticket value to redeem them as we do this more than 24 hours, but less than 48 hours before the train time – but we want out!).
We find a bus that goes from Kanyakumari to Madurai our next stop. It’s an air con, Volvo, but you can only book online if you have an Indian credit card. We find a travel agent who tells us that the air conditioned bus is full, so we opt for a “the windows open” bus the next day at 2pm. It will prove to be an amusing introduction to the Indian man in close quarters.
Travel Tips for Exploring India
- Read about India in these incredible books
- Protect your data – use a VPN in India – use this coupon to get 3 months free.
- Book the best tours and guides in India on GetYourGuide or Klook
- Book fabulous Indian Foodie experiences with locals through Eatwith
- Find the right accommodation for you via Booking.com and Hostelworld
- Book Trains and Buses in India with 12goAsia
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