Before traveling to anywhere, I always research first for the top 3 things to see, do or eat — and my final tourist travel in the Indian sub-continent to Kerala and south India was no exemption. It’s like my non-negotiable. It doesn’t matter whether I’m staying 6 hours or 6 days — I must be able to see/do/eat the top 3 things. After that, I feel happy and accomplished, ready to move on to the next destination. So, when I was checking out things to do in Kochi, the first European colony in India and one of the major metropolitan cities of the south Indian state of Kerala, the Chinese Fishing Nets definitely was on the list. Called Cheena vala in Malyalam (the local language), the Chinese Fishing Nets at Vasco da Gama square in Fort Kochi is a popular tourist spot, especially at sunset. The silhouette of the Cheena vala lining up the shore is such a sight that you wouldn’t imagine it for its actual purpose — a fishing net!
Like the Philippines, India was also colonized by different countries, one of which is France with Pondicherry as its known territory in the sub-continent. Pondicherry is a quaint coastal town-state in South India, reachable via the airport or major trains stopping at Chennai and about 3-hour bus/car drive. It is in Pondicherry where I first got introduced to South India (since I only passed by Chennai, it didn’t count) and to many things French. While no longer a territory of France these days, many of the structures remain especially when walking down the French quarter (which is the popular tourist area). One can still see and feel the legacy of France in Pondicherry and surprisingly, the way it has completely merged with the Tamilian culture and way of life. Walk down the Bay of Bengal’s beach or promenade and you will see Tamilian men in their lungis (wrap around “skirt”) and hear them conversing in French. The church services are in Hindi, Tamil and French. Even the streets have kept their French names. And, the food was awesome! The very reason we went to Pondicherry was to have a taste of French and Tamilian cuisines and Pondicherry provided us that — breads, steaks, desserts! Pondicherry is also home to several Ashrams of gurus and its close to Auroville, a commune serving “the Divine” — if in case you’d need food for the soul! >
It was in August 2012, while planning my first long holiday in India, that I got connected with Mamtha, a CouchSurfer from Bangalore in Karnataka, India.
I was supposed to meet up with her as part of my Mumbai-Goa-Bangalore-Chennai-Pondicherry trip. Working for the CSR Department of a multi-national company, I think she became interested in meeting with me as I was then volunteering in India. Sharing a common interest with a CS member beyond traveling, I was all psyched up to meet Mamtha in Bangalore!
Unfortunately though, I got really sick just two days before I was supposed to begin my trip. So, I had to cancel the first leg (Mumbai-Goa-Bangalore) and head straight to Chennai and Pondicherry a few days after my “OMG-I –thought-it-was-malaria-or-dengue” scare. Of course, I missed the chance to meet Sharma but I promised her that if I do get another opportunity to visit Bangalore, I will definitely meet her. In Indian terms, Pakka!
So, as part of my South India on a Run (aka final vacay in India), I proceeded to Bangalore after visiting the monuments at Hampi, Karnataka where I also couchsurfed. Mamtha said that she and her husband, Tyag, will pick me up from the Bangalore City Junction train station. Now, not all couchsurfing hosts pick up their surfers. So, that’s a really good indication that your host is very much willing to go out of their way to welcome you! Especially when your train is supposed to arrive at 6 o’clock in the morning!!!
Upon arrival at the train station, I saw Mamtha and Tyag even though I don’t know how she looks coz her profile has no photo yet! I guess, you know, you just feel it. But before we could leave the station, I had to ask their help. I was in Sleeper Class Coach #3 when this guy, a devotee I met in Hampi’s Virupaksha Temple came up to me and said that there was a foreign “white” woman in his Coach (Sleeper #8) who looked really distressed and kept crying all night. He offered to help her but she wouldn’t talk to him. So, he wanted me to check on her after we get off the train. So, I had to ask Mamtha and Tyag. Of course, they said yes we should go to her and see if she’s alright.
Turns out, Anna is also a CouchSurfer from Netherlands and also just came from Hampi. She was kind of distressed because she was in a section where mostly are men and they just kept staring at her. It is quite common in India (I experienced it too) for men to stare (like, really stare) especially if you are “white”. It does not necessarily mean that they are staring at you like imagining pervert things. It might just be because they are curious and you might be the first foreigner they met (sleeper class coach usually is for lower-middle-class/upper-poor-class) in their entire life. Even so, it can be quite uncomfortable. Anyway, cut the story short, as Anna, like me, is only in Bangalore for a day and heading towards Kerala (further south) in the late afternoon and evening, Mamtha and Tyag also invited her over to join us for the day! YEY!!!
Mamtha and Tyag live in a flat (condo) community in Bangalore (I think they are southside???). They live with Shantu, Mamtha’s 80-year-old mom, and both their daughters are in different states working and studying. Before we met, Mamtha described their home as a “simple middle class Indian home”. Well, after arriving at their home, I thought, she was being modest. I mean, I love their home! Nice furniture (esp the African spine-fitting-chairs!), spacious hall, green garden (with Ganapathi’s statue nonetheless!), and with paintings and sculptures too! It is indeed simple. But it’s really classy!
After freshening up, the first order of business was of course, yummy home-cooked Karnataka food by Shantu! We had poori (fried flour flat bread) saagu (aromatic spices blended with coconut and choice of veggies—I think we had potato, carrots and green peas). The Sharmas are vegetarians so of course, we enjoyed pure-veg goodness. A great way to start the morning with coffee and chai (Indian tea+milk+sugar)!
After getting our fill (actually more than because they wouldn’t let Anna and me off the hook until we ate twice our capacity!), we headed to the Gavi Ganghadeshwara Temple in Hanumanth Nagar. An example of Indian monolithic rock-cut architecture (like the Kailash Temple in Aurangabad), the Gavi Ganghadeshwara Temple is also called the Gavipuram Cave Temple. Apparently, the temple was built around the 9th Century (according to Wikipedia) and was constructed from a cave. Mamtha shared that she’s bringing us to THIS temple because it’s got more character than the new ones.
The Gavipuram Cave Temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva, one of the three main gods of Hinduism. His bull, Nandi, is found in front of the temple entrance, as part of the area where devotees light diwas (oil candles) as part of the offering for the aarti/puja (prayer ceremony) that we became a part of (I’ve been to some pujas but it’s my first time to have it inside a temple, I think for Anna too!). Another interesting feature of the Gavi Gangadeshwara Temple is that the Shivalinga, the main diety, is located at a position where, at certain times of the year, the sun’s rays will pass through the horns of Nandi and light up the shrine! Too bad we missed it!
We also missed most of the idols of deities and sages inside the cave, built long, long time ago, even before the records could show, since there’s restoration/construction going on. Mamtha did share that a Shiva statue was wearing a string that is the style of a Brahmin (priests) caste. Now, it is quite unique because Shiva belongs to the Kshatriya (warriors) caste! (Looks like it’s a privileged info as I didn’t find it mentioned in most of the literature for the temple! I so love good ol’ local knowledge!) What I didn’t miss though, was the feeling that Mamtha described whenever she goes to this temple. I felt calm and at peace. It’s not like the other new/metro temples I’ve seen that was always buzzing. Apart from the temple prayer/music, I think I didn’t hear other sounds—even the city’s noise was kind of tuned out!
After spending time just chatting and “feeling” the temple (which reminded me of Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), we then proceeded to our next destination—Ambara, an antique, arts and crafts boutique! If I wasn’t surfing with Mamtha, I wouldn’t have known about the place. Or, I probably would know but I wouldn’t go. The reason being that Ambara is quite upscale. I mean, with the quality of their products, I think they really are targeting upscale customers.
Actually, before entering, Mamtha already shared that it’s an expensive place to buy stuff and our goal is not to buy—it’s to see and appreciate the culture, creativity and craftsmanship of Karnataka. And so we did. I mean, the place is impressively divine! The sarees are lovely and the garments are so rich. The leather bags are to die for! Anna had to “motivate” herself to move on from the grey tote bag she was eyeing. I think it was like 20,000 rupees (PhP 15000) or something! The furniture and sculptures definitely had a lot of character into it, and a hefty price tag too! But, then, as I said, the market is upscale. I do think the products on showcase at Ambara are worth every paisa!
Anna wanted to get a kurta and since Ambara is way out of our price range, Mamtha took us to Fab India (imagine the Indian version of Kultura Filipino with more focus on Fashion and lifestyle products). Fab India offers high quality garments with, I should say, reasonable prices. If you are lucky, some might even be on sale! After trying out some, Anna settled for a blue cotton kurta and pledged to get more once she reaches Sri Lanka!
And of course, after all this sightseeing and shopping, our tummies have started complaining and we headed back to the Sharma’s home for another round of traditional South Indian lunch thali! And we ate with our hand, or at least tried to! It’s the best way to enjoy South Indian food! On the menu were Rasam or Saru (in Kannada), a sour (tamarind) soupy dish (lots of radish), cabbage palya (stir fried cabbage with shredded coconut), cucumber pachadi (grated cucumber in yoghurt), and my favorite, papadom (crispy fried/flame grilled pringles-like snack/side dish)! The saagu made a welcomed comeback too! Of course, again, Shantu’s cooking was awesome! I don’t need to state how many servings I had, right?!
After lunch, it was time to again pack our bags and leave the Sharma’s home. Well, not without a ‘CS-extended-family’ pic of course! Thank God for the timer! So (*sniff sniff*) we had to bade goodbye to Shantu (I asked for her blessing (mano po!) the traditional Filipino way) and the Sharmas’ home! Tyag would have wanted to tour us around their community but we were running out of time. Anna has an earlier train than me so we parted ways at Brigade Road, the central location where Bangaloreans and tourists alike meet.
I would say that Bangalore is more, uhm, Western when it comes to dressing up, more western than Mumbai or Delhi. Probably because of the influence of the MNCs (especially IT companies as Bangalore is tagged the Silicon Valley of India) and the influx of foreign students and travelers in the area.
Our time in Brigade Road was made more enjoyable when I saw the familiar Green, White and Red logo of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts!!! Yes, I went so gaga that Mamtha must have thought me crazy!!! The Krispy Kreme Doughnut store in Bangalore is the first and only in India. So yes, I went gaga! Although the line was quite long, Mamtha and I braved the queue to get a taste of the famous original doughnuts. And yes, she loved it too! She bought some home coz she knows Tyag and Shantu should definitely try it out too!!!
After our sweet sojourn, it was time for me to bid farewell to Mamtha. I wanted to visit the Bangalore’s famous Lal Bagh Botanical Garden before heading to the train station and Mamtha also had to be somewhere else. Though the time spent with Mamtha and her family was just a few hours, their genuine hospitality towards me and Anna was really something I count as highlights of this trip. (And to think I almost did not push through my South India vacay!)
I wrote this post not only as a way of sharing the CouchSurfing experience but also as a way of expressing deep gratitude to the Sharmas for sharing a day in their life and welcoming us to their lovely home.
As part of my South India on a Run (aka final holiday in India), I explored and basked in the history and charm of Hampi in Karnataka, South India, the former seat of the Vijayanagara Empire.
Hampi is getting more and more popular to tourists these days, especially attracting the foreign “hippie crowd” who are the mainstays of less-known and more secluded beaches of Goa and Gokarna.
So much so that the “island” across the river from the main Hampi Bazaar area is locally known as the “Hippie Island”.
Apart from the monuments and old temples, Hampi also has a lot of Lord Hanuman’s relatives—monkeys! You would see them in almost every temple, running and jumping around. And yes, they are cute and all but what would amuse you more, actually for almost all monkeys I’ve seen not just in Hampi but everywhere in India, is their ability to eat all the processed and packed foods as if they were born to have it!
Another amazing thing about Hampi is the fact that a lot of its monuments (at least the ones I saw) are still pretty much intact. Some has been reconstructed (it’s distracting when I saw the workers do this by the way) and luckily were made as if it was the real thing.
I only managed to see the temples in Hampi and not the palaces as I was really taking my time with each and I wasn’t much in the mood to overexert myself to go around. I t was hot when I went (February) and I guess I was tired from my Aurangabad trip just the previous weekend!
Also, I think, while Hampi is totally doable in a day, you would need more than that to imbibe all the history and culture it could offer. I mean, if you would like really want to see and feel Hampi, you just gotta take your time and stay longer!
All in all, Hampi is a great place to see if you want to do some Indiana Jones or Lara Croft-like activities. Trekking, stone-climbing, river crossings and maybe even treasure hunting.
Another good thing you can do is devote a little of your time (and money) to help the cause of the Hampi Children Trust. Ran by a CouchSurfer (who hosted me despite him being in Kerala), Hampi Children Trust aims to educate 40 local children in different standards (grades). You can also buy second-hand donated books for sale too! I think it’s a good way of traveling and also giving back to Hampi!