Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Yelagiri Hills, written

Buenos dias.
First news is that I’m healed- partially. The toe is giving me less trouble and my pink eyes are turning whiter by the day. I am slowly but surely returning to sound health (knock on wood). I'm feeling good as I had a really productive weekend. Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.
Friday night, I attended my first ever “foam party.” L-A-M-E is the first word that comes to mind. Having never been to a foam party before, I didn’t really have any idea what to expect. Supposedly such are really popular in Europe, where people go to clubs and get doused in…foam. Due to my generally innocent (or naïve) nature, I thought that the party would be one big bubble bath. Turns out, a foam party typically signifies a wet and wild time- complete with sud machines, strobe lights, and house music. Could have been exciting (with a strict emphasis on could), but the Chennai foam party fell short. There was something about the suds machine being made of an old shampoo bottle, the dizzying strobe lights, and the headache-inducing house music that made me leave feeling disappointed. Oh well, next time I'll bathe in my own tub.
Saturday and Sunday proved to be the saving graces of the weekend. The cream of the crop, as they say. Saturday afternoon I headed to Chennai central railway station to meet up with five friends from work. We had booked a train for the six of us to head to Yelagiri hills, a relaxing area and decent hiking destination about four hours west of Chennai. As usual, not all of our tickets had been confirmed but we lucked out with a kind TT (ticket taker) who helped us get situated. By accident, we had booked the first class a/c coach. Although comfortable, it was largely a waste of money as we spent most of the time standing in the corridor between the two coaches, hanging our heads and feet out the doorway and enjoying the views. Within ten minutes of leaving the station the views completely change. The urban side of Chennai surrenders itself to smaller developments, villages, and finally vast fields of green. The stench of pollution and exhaust gives way to fresh and cool air and it doesn't take long for me to think, "why don't I do this more often?"
After nearly four hours, we got off at Jolarpet and had the task of finding a ride to take us to Yelagiri. Thankfully, bargaining was easier as a result of two members in the group being Tamil speakers. For 450 rupees (9 bucks) in total, we piled into a taxi whose interior resembled 70s drab. The roads were steep and incredibly windy, reminding me of my trip to the Kham region of Tibet a few years back. I didn't have the mindset to allow myself to get carsick, though, as the ride was pleasant with windows down and dare I say cold air! As we neared the hills we were met with an overwhelmingly fresh scent- eucalyptus! The lankiness of eucalyptus trees is no indicator of the smell they're capable of producing. The trees lined the road and emitted a fragrance unmatched to anything I've smelled in India. (When you get accustomed to the daily smell of piss and pollution, a breath of fresh air is not to be taken for granted!)
After one hour or so of driving, we got dropped off near a spot that appeared to have several accommodations. As is most often the case, I'm the "budget traveler" of the group and couldn't afford the hotel we had originally booked. Since I was the minority in the situation, I offered to try searching around that hotel for some cheaper digs. As luck would have it, there was a place directly across the street which was offering a room for 1/3 the price of our first hotel. A few of us checked out the room and it appeared clean enough. Basic, but clean. Perhaps in the excitement of finding cheap digs did we become oblivious to other indicators on the "sketch scale." The hotel was neon green and actually had no name at all. No sign out front, nothing. Also, turns out the man who offered us the room didn't even work at the hotel! Maybe his eagerness to show the place (coupled with intense whiskey breath) should have given this away, but we didn't know. Lastly, while the street was quiet and dark on all sides of our new pad, our area seemed to be the village hangout. I would have never stayed there alone, but with four other guys in the group we felt safe. Anyhow, although a bit on the sketchy side, the hotel was just fine for one night of stay.
We awoke at 5:30 the next morning with the intent to start hiking bright and early. Considering the night before we had entertained ourselves quite late with card games, singing, and most notably, my tae kwon do exhibition, we were more exhausted than we had intended. We managed to leave the hotel a little after 6:00- not bad for a group of night owls. We walked the streets in search for breakfast but were told everywhere we went that no food would be served until 8:00. We contemplated filling up on coffee and bananas but decided against it. We had to walk a few kilometers before even reaching the base of the foothills, so chances were we could find something along the way. About 45 minutes into our walk, we discovered "Silent Waters," a cozy little cottage serving an all you can eat South Indian breakfast buffet for 100 rupees/head. Bring on the idli, vadai, poori and omelets!
Finally, around 9:00 we set out for the foothills. We passed villages, rice paddies, and donkeys whose front legs were tied together. I found this to be cruel but was told many people in rural areas do this so that the donkeys don't run far away. Suppose this works, as the donkeys certainly can't run but basically hop their way along the roads. The hike itself was great, although it turned out to be much less challenging that I had hoped for. It's been a while since I've hiked, though, and it felt good to get sweaty, dirty, and rock climb! We stopped a couple times for photo shoots along the way and after about an hour made it to the top. As out of shape as I feel here, I managed to beat everyone to the top- woohoo! Must get the hardcore outdoorsy thing from my Mom. :)
A seemingly misplaced American flag was perched at the top of the hill which David managed to swipe within minutes. He felt justified in doing so as he is "an American who appreciates good souvenirs." We chilled at the top for a couple hours, enjoying views of the village below, snapping photos and munching on snacks. Around mid-day we decided to head down to meet up with dear Reihem, the member of our group who had opted to "smoke cigarettes at base camp and meet us on the way back." Oooooh, Reihem. Turns out he had his own stories to share, though; he was invited into a South Indian village wedding and asked to perform puja (prayer). I think had we arrived at the scene any later he would have been married off to the village girl who had been eying his Hawaiian shirt and sexy linen pants.
We made it back to the hotel around 3:00, packed up and set off. The train ride back was pretty uneventful as most of us passed out as soon as we found our seats. At around 9:00 pm, we approached Chennai central. I've found that there's no way to ease oneself into Chennai. There's no buffer...no way to coax into city life. The intensity of smells, sounds, and heat of Chennai is dramatic and there's no way to dilute any of it. Long after the sun had gone down, I found myself sweating through the train station and out into the streets that always honk. I haggle endlessly with auto drivers to get a price that's not 10x what it should be and realize, just like that, I'm back "home."
All in all, the weekend was awesome and the group were great travel companions. We spent half the time talking about where our next trip will be. Until then...


Jens said...

Sounds and looks fantastic, Katelyn! I'm looking even more forward to trekking in two weeks time now:)

And happy to hear that your health is improving - sounds like your stay in Chennai is getting more enjoyable by the day!

BaKecske said...

Leaving Chennai reminds you always how much you miss nature.

Tip for next time: there is a 'Prepaid auto' booth at central station, open 24/7, were you can get an auto for a fixed CHEAP price anywhere you want inside Chennai. Just one minute in a queue, and no haggling.

Smaps said...

Hey Jens, yes I'm bummed I can't make the trek! Have to work that Saturday but enjoy and take pics!

BaKecske- thanks for the advice! Believe it or not, we did get in the prepaid auto line. Even so, those auto drivers still managed to hassle us endlessly. From what I hear from Indian friends, Chennai is the worst city in India in terms of auto drivers. Supposedly in Bombay, Delhi, etc, autos will use the meter and won't haggle you to death. An auto driver who will actually use the meter in Chennai is almost unheard of (although as Jens has pointed out, happens from time to time) My friends say this is due to a lack of "civic sense in Chennai." You agree? I don't think I've been here long enough to say.

PS- who are you by the way? :)

reihem said...

i love you! :-P

BaKecske said...

Lack of civic sense? I don't know. Apparently it's the Tamil Nadu police force that is the less corrupt in the whole of India. So I'm sure the Tamils are very community orientated. Is that what you mean by civic sense?
I think it's a lack of foreseeing that in the long run it's better for everyone and more fair if they used the meter. They're only half way to a well regulated society. I guess you can call that a lack of civic sense.

ps: I'm a fellow blogger, who knows what joy it brings to see that other people read and comment on your blog ;)

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