Saturday, January 5, 2013

Mysore, India

Mysore hit our radar for three reasons. Location, location, location.

There have been two places that have consistently come up when we ask other travelers their favorite places in India: Hampi and Varanasi. Hampi is south central, while Varanasi is in the north towards Nepal, we want to hit both. Hampi was our next logical destination from Kodaikanal, the little mountain town in the Western Ghats.
The issue was that getting from Kodaikanal to Hampi was going to be two night buses in a row. This did not sound like fun, so we decided to stop in Mysore for a day or two.
We arrived in Mysore around noon and got off into a city that is clearly India. Nowhere else we have been has so consistently assaulted all five senses. The women are dressed in colorful saris. Bright yellow garlands adorn doors, windows and rear-view mirrors. The savory smell of samosas tickles your fancy, right before the smell of feces tickles your gag reflex. Smog forces its way into your throat and forms a thin film covering your skin. And of course, the honking. Constant, incessant, annoying car horns, motorbike horns, bus horn and truck horns. Then lets throw in some cows horns. Watch where you step.
Our first day saw us check in to Parklane Hotel, which is the most fun establishment we’ve stayed in while in India. It’s a five story building with a rooftop pool located fairly centrally. They’ve worked to make sure that there’s plants all around the lobby and friendly people helping out. The room was clean, comfortable, had a safe and a television. The restaurant on the second floor opened up over the street and they had grown ivy along wire in the roof.
It also had an ingenious roof that would roll back to let sun in which reminded me of the retractable roofs on sports stadiums. At first, I thought this was for the rain, but when a troop of monkeys came overhead they rolled the roof over the top to keep them out. It turns out that they had a retractable monkey roof.
Our first adventure saw us take the local bus up to the top of Chumundi Hill, which holds a holy Hindu temple with a 40 meter “gopurum,” which is a fancy word for entrance. Hindus traditionally walk up the 1000 steps to the temple, which probably takes about a half hour. Halfway up there’s a huge statue of Nandi, who is a bull and the mount of the god Shiva.
I’m not sure whether Hindus are supposed to do the walk barefoot, but many do. I’m very sure that Leslie did not want to walk it barefoot, but her sandal made that decision for her. Those sandals had done well for a pair we got for 13 euro in Italy all those months ago, but they met their end in Mysore and Leslie walked back up the hill with one shoe. I went barefoot to show moral support.
Our budding celebrity amongst the Indians continued on the bus ride back as we struck up a conversation with some eighteen year old boys. Small talk has been very predictable with “Where are you from?”, “What do you do?” and “How old are you?” being very common questions along with “are you married?” With these guys it became more interesting as one of them spoke enough English to share some of his thoughts on marriage.
“Are you a love marriage?” he asked. I explained to him that in the United States they are all love marriages. He seemed a bit flabbergasted as the arranged marriage is still very much the norm in India. They confirmed that they all expect to have marriages arranged for them at age 21. The only exception was one guy who already had a marriage arranged. They teased him about it and he blushed. The next day we went to the local market, which ended up being a great experience. The old market was enclosed inside a large rock wall, with modern stores selling technology, hair products and baked goods attached to the outside.
Inside, it could have been three hundred years ago. Hawkers sold bengal bracelets at the entrance, while huge piles of different colored powders were for sale by the door. These were for dyes and could be mixed to make paint, dye clothes, create bindis or paint hands. Salesmen tried selling us oils, which seemed okay until we realized the “pure” sandalwood oil they were trying to sell us was about 1/3 of the price the Lonely Planet said it should be. I’m sure it was “pure” something.
Incense makers mixed with people selling cooking utensils and carvings in one half of the bazaar, where shoppers and merchants rubbed shoulders due to the lack of physical space. The other half saw individual sellers standing behind huge piles of fruits or vegetables on the ground, yelling the same thing over and over quite loudly. I’m assuming it was something along the lines of “buy my okra!” or “pinto beans for 50 rupee!”
I then began feeling sick. We had always been warned about getting sick in India, but that was for stomach bugs. I guess our stomachs are pretty strong, because we haven’t had food poisoning, but Leslie got strep throat, and now I’m going down with a cold.
We spent most of the rest of the day down in bed, venturing out only to RR Hotel for a thali dinner of rice and gravies.
The overnight buses have been a mixed blessing. So far, they’ve been cheaper than a hotel here, so we’re actually saving money on travel days, which is the opposite of everywhere else we’ve been. The problem is that if we check out at 11 and don’t leave until 8 we have 9 hours with no room. This is a bit inconvenient, but not a big problem, unless you’re sick. Then it sucks.
Nevertheless, we powered through to get to the last major site in Mysore on our final day.
The Wodeyar Dynasty ruled most of South India from Mysore between 1399 and 1947. Their palace is everything you would expect of a Maharaja. We walked to the north side first because it was next to our hotel. We had to walk around the entire building to the south entrance, which took about half an hour.
A moment of levity came when a large tour bus decided to enter through the exit. An Indian lady in her sixties I was talking to started yelling at them just in time to see the bus driver scrape his left rear corner against the wall surrounding the Maharaja’s Palace. We got a good laugh.
It cost us ten times as much as the locals to get into the palace. After paying the $8 for the two of us we joined rest of the throng inside.
There were some foreigners, but we’re learning that the vast majority of tourism in India is domestic, meaning most of the tourists were Indians. Lots of people from Chennai and Bangalore make it to Mysore along with groups of school children who were all dressed in sky blue shirts with navy blue shorts and collars.
The palace grounds themselves were quite well taken care of, with the grounds within the walls being about five times the size of the palace. Green grass and flower gardens mingled with sculptures of tigers and many hundreds of people. Like almost everywhere in India, the place was packed, forcing us to jettison western standards of personal space.
To top it off, there are no shoes allowed inside the palace, so everyone has to take their shoes off. There is an official place to drop off your shoes for a token, but most people just dumped their shoes by one of the gardens.
The palace itself was quite impressive, exactly as you’d imagine a Maharaja’s palace to be. Huge party rooms built for entertaining royal guests were decorated with large stained glass windows and semi-precious stones. Paintings of scenes from the Ramayana and other Hindu stories covered the walls, along with pictures of the Royal family during festive occasions. Three story pillars held up the roof over large dance halls.
Its too bad that pictures are not allowed inside the palace, but it was still fun to see.
Upon leaving, Leslie’s celebrity had an interesting moment. She sat down to tie her shoes on a bench , a man started watching her. Then a second, then a third. Soon, a dozen people had gathered around to watch Leslie put on her shoe. She hadn’t noticed as she was rather pre-occupied with the laces. I asked her to smile and we ended up with a picture of a dozen people watching Leslie tie her shoe.
Then we were mobbed by the school kids. I don’t know what they said exactly, but after a bunch of handshakes we ducked out and ran back to the restaurant at Parklane Hotel. We still had a few hours before the night bus, but I still wasn’t feeling great so sitting and reading sounded wonderful.
Parklane even had a Western food menu, which is pretty handy when your main goal is to eat something that will allow you an easy 12 hour ride in a bathroom-less bus.
I thought the pepper chicken was a good idea. Then I realized that what I thought was “black pepper” chicken was actually “red spicy peppers ground up into a paste” chicken.
Next stop, Hampi.

1 comment:

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