Vizag to Araku Valley to Chennai to Sri Lanka Tues 17 - Mon 23 Aug 2010
Hard though it was, we resolved to tear ourselves away from the luxury of the Park Hotel and its amazing beachside location and "head for the hills" of the Araku Valley. As ever with Indian cities the traffic around town was pretty full on /crazy but once we got on the right road out of town (a couple of wrong turns on the way!) we quickly left the city behind and were soon in the countryside with the Eastern Gnats forming a lovely back drop.
About 150km to the north of Vizag the drive up to the Araku Valley is very beautiful passing numerous tribal villages with their distinctive woven huts. The air got cooler as we went up much better camping weather! We were really lucky as as we drove along we passed straight through a tribal market and so stopped to look around. We had heard that you have to be careful approaching the tribal peoples in their villages -there are all sorts of complex rules re: social norms which you can unwittingly offend so you really need a guide. Thus we felt really privileged to just happen upon a weekly market which enabled us to have a look up close.
Some of the tribal people live in the low areas which we'd passed through but the majority walk down from the hills - sometimes distances of over 10km - to attend these weekly functions where they socialize (lots of home brew being consumed!) and trade goods.
Many of them had driven down in real old fashioned "gypsy carts" with buffaloes but most walk and carry huge amounts of goods on their heads. There are frequent rain storms at the moment which accounts for the popularity of the big woven umbrella hats which were doing a roaring trade.
They also make amazing rain coats entirely out of leaves - we'd seen some in the tribal museum and we did spot a couple but sadly the wearers were camera shy so no good pictures. The lady in our picture with the amazing dreadlocks was (we thought from info gathered at the museum) a shaman who are the holy /medicine people of the tribes. All really interesting and we felt very lucky we'd chosen the right day (Wednesday) to drive by.
Driving up into the hills the temperature dropped further and the views became magnificent - blue tinged hills stretching off into the horizon.
Whilst they tend to mix Christian teachings with their tribal beliefs the missionaries were here with a vengeance "speading the word" amongst the tribal people and you see Christian churches dotted all around these hills.
This is coffee growing country and we stopped to buy some fresh coffee off 2 enterprising young guys who were selling it around all the lookout spots Further on we loved this guy's fantastic "leaf hat" -a bit Bill & Ben - the same style as the raincoats.
As we drove round one bend we saw lots of bits of vehicle and there was a recovery team down the bank getting up a lorry which had fallen - apparently there were 2 men dead but due to language difficulties we couldn't work out when it had happened. Just then as if to reinforce how treacherous the roads around here can be it started to really bucket down. The whole atmosphere changed in seconds and suddenly we were driving up roads which had turned into rivers and were breaking apart before our eyes, pretty scary and you can really see how accidents happen.
We came out the other side of the storm though and made it to the small village of Araku where we camped that night at the government hotel (the APTDC here) Haritha Resort. We asked if we could camp and they kept putting us off saying we'd have to ask the manager. We had dinner (very good) and waited around asking every half hour or so if he had returned "not yet soon and then you ask."
Eventually at 10pm we just went off to bed and had a good night's sleep. One of the staff let out the next day that the manager was actually away for a month!! We have had weird situations like this a few times. We think it is due to the extreme hierarchical nature of Indian organizations no one likes to make a decision so that if it's later criticized then the buck doesn't stop with them. Thus they will tell you any old crap to make you go away so they don't have to say no to you. If you just go ahead and do something 9 times out of 10 -no problem - just no one likes to be the one who gave you permission in case it all goes wrong! Anyway great spot and we had a good night's sleep. We enjoyed a real South Indian coffee along with idlis -steamed rice cakes you dip in coconut and spicy sauce - for breakfast. We're definitely back down south again!
On our way up as ever we'd stopped a couple of times to ask directions and one time a very enthusiastic gentleman had given us a list of 5 "must sees" in the area. Sadly we couldn't fit them all in due to distance and time but we kicked off with number 1 on the list the nearby "Tribal Museum." This was really interesting -again no inside pictures. On the way out there was an arrow shooting display where you could use a traditional tribal bow and arrow to shoot a target. Andrew had a few goes - his arrows over shot the target by miles so (he said!) he would have got the animals as they were fleeing!
There was a shop linked to a local coffee plantation nearby selling really good coffee and a few shops selling tribal bits and pieces all worth a look. We then went to number 2 on the list and which was Chaparai. So off we drove to see it despite not knowing what the hell it was! We had asked a few time and were told it was "shooting place. " I mimed firing a gun and got "yes yes" so I figured it was …what ..a shooting gallery?? Anyway we finally found it and it was a fairly scenic river /small waterfall in quite a picturesque setting but we couldn't work out what was being shot. Eventually we found out that it was the location /setting for a love scene in a popular Indian movie- so that sort of shooting ! A bit lost on us. I guess my gun mime just looked like a movie star!!
Time was running short so we decided to just see one more thing, the million year old Borra Caves. To cut a long story short this just obviously wasn't meant to be. We got incorrect directions so wasted time going down an old track for miles, retraced our steps and then had to wait 15 minutes at the crossing for the train to wind its laborious way down the mountains. Thus we got to the entrance of the caves at 1pm. Just time for a quick look before we had to drive back down to Vizag.
The flaw in this was that the ticket sellers were on lunch break. There were still 3 staff on the turnstiles letting people -with earlier purchased tickets - in and out. Well one doing it and 2 watching -but no one would sell us a ticket for half an hour. "Not enough staff" I spied 2 fast asleep with their feet up mouths open in the ticket office - wouldn't you think they'd stagger lunch??!! We were just too strapped for time so no Borra Caves for us this trip! Nevertheless this was a lovely area with gorgeous scenery and lots of interesting tribal people so we'd recommend a detour to see the Araku Valley.
On balance maybe it was as well we gave the caves a miss as we didn't get back to meet up with Ravi Tim O'Reilly's assistant until 6pm. Tim has really kindly given us a safe place to leave the car - his business premises Sandy Bay Seafoods, just outside Vizag. Of course it took us longer than foreseen to regroup and pack for Sri Lanka as we had to get Andrew's surf board out from under the car etc Ravi and Tim's driver insisted on waiting around all this time and then gave us a lift and sorted us out with some cheap accommodation just near the station which was very helpful . Thanks guys for all your help and for looking after the car for us.
The guys at the hotel promised faithfully to wake us at 5am for our train but we stepped over their sleeping bodies in reception when we left so thankfully we'd also set our phone alarm!!
It was a bit hard going finding our train no signs in English and we were given duff instructions a few times so somewhat stressfully we found our carriage and boarded with just minutes to spare. Sadly we didn't get a window seat which would have been nice but all in all it was a pleasant 13 hour trip. We drove through the water logged paddy fields of what is the "rice bowl" of India. As ever in India everything comes to you and char wallahs and vendors selling everything and anything traipse up and down all day so you never really need to leave your seat! Pretty relaxing and I almost finished my book in one sitting!
The only sour note was when the poor young man opposite us had his laptop stolen. He had left it in his sleeping bunk for just minutes and when he got back it was gone. Reminded us of our bad experience in Thailand, it's an awful thing to lose for all the information etc even if you are insured and it contained all his college work so we really felt for him. After this we got out our cable and Andrew chained his surf board up (it was outside couldn't fit in the cabin) though it would be a bulky thing to get away with in a hurry!! A good reminder not to let your guard down I guess.
We had a feeling of completing a circle when the train pulled into Egmore station Chennai. This is where we first hit Indian over a year ago and now we've driven (ok the last 700km by train) completely around the circumference of this wonderful country. When we were last in Chennai it was the hot season and pretty unbearable so thankfully it was a lot better now though it looked like it'd been raining heavily. We'd already booked into a cheapie hotel the Hotel Regent just a short walk from the station so we avoided using the Chennai rickshaw drivers who we remembered were a pretty ruthless lot.
Chennai by evening had a nice southern laid back vibe and it felt good to be back. The next day -after a good sleep in - we went to the Government Museum which we'd missed out on last time. It was in an imposing old building though much of it was closed for renovation when we visited. Quite a few dusty cages full of stuffed animals but the highlight was the bronzes, statues of gods and goddesses mainly and really spectacular. It was 250 rupees each to visit and an extra 200 for the cameras so we didn't bother with the camera ticket so no good pictures of these - though Andrew did manage to sneak in a piccie of an Indian whale's jaw bone in a less guarded area! We liked the cannon which was captured from Tippu the tiger of Mysore -in some 18th century battle, as well as the evil eyed fiber glass dinosaur! We then had afternoon tea at the Taj Connemara Hotel as a treat - though we had to retreat inside and look out at the garden and pool area through the curtain of driving rain, which set in by midday with no signs of let up.
It was still pounding down the next morning so our plans to go for a bracing walk up the Marina beach had to be shelved. Much of the morning was spent dodging the downpour whilst trying to track down a Vodafone store which we eventually did but it was shut!
Honestly a book could be written about our dealings with Vodafone in India- we have a phone on roaming and use WCC or World Calling Cards to call the UK and Oz at very cheap rates. Only problem is every time we change state - which is pretty frequent for us - the connection to the WCC stops working requiring irritating trips to the nearest VF store to put right. The problem is with Chennai allegedly - the place we bought the original card from whose computer won't speak to anyone elses. You'd think then that we'd have more joy getting it working here -but nope- anyway we just spent 550 rupees on a new phone card to ring everyone before flying out to SL and it won't work. We explained all this to the customer service desk who very helpfully sent us a text telling us that they'd "resolve our issue" within 10 days!! We fly out in 10 hours - thanks a lot!! - have to sort it out in a month's time.
Anyway we retreated into an internet café for the rest of the day and got some pictures on the site - this seems to be hard work at the moment so keep checking they're going on slowly but surely. When we got back to the Hotel Regent a scary sight awaited us - the whole courtyard of the hotel was underwater and looked like a disaster zone with piles of sandbags precariously teetering around the edges as a sort of barricade against the water. With no other choice we waded through ankle deep water up to bed! The rain kept going heavily all night and for some reason I just couldn't sleep and so was very bleary eyed when our alarm went off at 3.45am - with the rain still driving down outside. Back through the ever deepening water with our luggage held aloft and into a little taxi where Andrew's board just fitted in at an angle, threatening to decapitate me a few times when the brakes were slammed on Indian style! Anyway we arrived without incident and had an uneventful flight on our Air India Express airline -which incidentally had not one but 2 lady pilots -girl power!! At 8.30am we arrived safely at Bandaranaike International airport near Colombo to begin our trip to our 12th country to date - Sri Lanka.