Bad luck in Berlin takes us on a flashback to southern India.
We set off to cross Berlin by bicycle yesterday. A few blocks into our journey, my back tire exploded. Literally. It sounded like a gunshot.
A few minutes later, at a nearby bike repair shop, we met a fellow customer named Rajiv. He’d come to our rescue with a little German translation and haggling help. Originally from the IT-famed southern Indian city of Bangalore, Rajiv now calls Berlin his home.
We asked him where to find the best Indian food in Berlin. “London,” he joked.
Later that evening, Audrey and I returned to reminiscing, well beyond food, about the time we spent in southern India. These were the images and experiences – some from a guidebook, others from grace – that we turned over in our memories.
10 Favorite Experiences from Southern India (Kerala and Tamil Nadu)
1. Kathikali Dancing – Kochi (Fort Cochin)
Audrey’s relationship with Kathikali dancers goes way back. Growing up, her family had a Kathikali dancer doll with one of those wobbling heads; it always spooked her.
Although we can be skeptical of ethnic dances served up exclusively to tourists, we enjoyed the Kathikali performance put on by Kerala Kathikali Centre in Fort Cochin. Proceeds from their performances go toward training new dancers and keeping the tradition alive. Go early so you can catch the elaborate make-up and pre-show.
2. Street Cricket – Kochi (Fort Cochin)
The only way to find this: seek out the most unlikely alleyways in the city. When you hear kids squealing in a courtyard, poke your head in and you may just be invited to a game of street cricket.
Ask for help on how to hold the bat properly. (You can see it did me no good.)
3. Kerala Backwaters Boat Trip – Alleppey
We did not opt for the traditional Kerala Backwater live aboard houseboat tour. Instead, we arranged a day tour from our guest house in Fort Cochin one day and opted to hire a man with a dugout canoe in Alleppey on another.
Our favorite: the day-trip in a dugout canoe outside of Alleppey. Since we were in a tiny boat, we could get into small canals and get up close to homes and villages along the way. Our canoe captain introduced us to his family. The mangroves and lilies were so thick that we even got stuck. To give you a sense of how dire our circumstances, my manpower was required to extricate us from the mangroves and water lilies that had engulfed our boat.
4. Biryani Festival – Kollam
After emerging from one of the most incredible masala dosas in all of India (Sree Suprabatham Restaurant), we stumbled upon a group of men in a parking lot (isn’t all of India a parking lot?) stirring an enormous tin pot of biryani.
From what we could make out (not a lot of English was spoken here), it was a Muslim holiday and the men were handing out free vegetable biryani to anyone and everyone. They insisted we take a bag. Tasty and unusual, it featured hints of coconut, star anise and mint.
If you don’t happen to be in Kollam on a Muslim holiday that includes free biryani, have no fear, an experience still awaits. Just head towards the market. It’s terrific and winding, and the people are outrageously friendly and colorful.
5. Flower Market – Madurai
In Madurai, the Sri Meenakshi temple gets much of the attention (and rightly so). In case you wonder where all the flowers and garlands in and around the temple come from, check the flower market on the outskirts of town. Flowers play an important role as offerings in Hindu pujas (prayers) and ceremonies.
Wipe those images of Dutch flower markets from your head. The Madurai flower market is the antithesis –sensory overload, sweet flowers, trash heaps. Vendors stack flowers, everyone’s negotiating. It’s fascinating and beautiful in that inimitable Indian fashion.
The flower market was actually listed in our Lonely Planet guide, but it has moved to “middle of nowhere outskirts” (yup, that’s it’s official address) Madurai. It took a small village of friendly locals and bus drivers to get us there. So, ask at your guest house or ask early and often how to get there.
6. Momos and Pav Bhaji in Kodai (Kodaikanal)
Tibetan food and Bombay chaat (snacks) in a southern small Indian hill town? Kodaikanal’s cosmopolitan culinary selection is thanks to the diversity of the student population at the Kodaikanal International School; restaurants know that students like a taste from home.
We were in town to check out the town where Audrey’s mother went to elementary school. Unfortunately, it rained buckets the whole time, so hikes and boat rides were out and eating round-the-clock was in. We chowed down on momos (Tibetan dumplings) and Bombay street snacks like pav bhaji and sev puri.
7. Elephant Blessing in Tiruchirappalli (Trichy)
Here’s the great thing about India: if you walk around enough and keep your eyes open, you are quite likely to run into an elephant at some point. (Actually, you could keep your eyes closed and run into an elephant, too.)
We not only found an elephant at the Sri Ranganathaswamy temple, but he was offering blessings to boot! (A few rupees to his owner for the privilege, of course). It was fun to be blessed, but even more fun to watch kids like these being tickled by the trunk of an elephant.
8. Cows Licking Their Chops in Puducherry (Pondicherry)
It is well known that cows are sacred in India. What you may not know, however, is that there is often a system at work of shopkeepers and vendors feeding random samosas and food bits to these sacred cows. It’s as if the cows have a routine; they know which vendors have the best snacks and hit them up first. For the vendors, it must be good karma to give food to a sacred animal.
So when we ran into cows in Pondicherry licking their chops, we began to wonder who’d just fed them.
9. Entertain a school group – Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram)
What do you do when you meet a group of school kids on a trip to the rathas (rock-cut temples) in Mahabalipuram?
Pull out the camera and have some fun. (Truth is you pull out the camera wherever you meet a group of schoolkids in India.). While the engravings and Krishna’s Butter Ball are worth a quick look, the kids on the field trip stole the show.
10) George Town market – Chennai (Madras)
Audrey lived in Chennai until she was two years old, so her memories of the city are, shall we say, a little vague.
So we paused our temple hopping and paid a visit to the George Town market (behind Fort St. George) and we asked around there to see if anyone remembered her.
Unfortunately, no one remembered Audrey, but that didn’t prevent them from offering a smile.
And if you happen to embark on your own scavenger hunt to southern India, we’ll be curious to know what you find.