It wasn't easy getting a ticket. The trains were sold out, but they reserve a certain number of seats for every train that are released first thing in the morning, 2 days before the train leaves, known as the tatkal quota. I went to a travel agent I know, and hired him to get me a tatkal seat. Even still, he was unable to get a berth in the air-conditioned cars, so I ended up in sleeper class. I believe I still get a full padded bench to myself, but there is no AC. It's been cooler since the monsoon has started though, and I don't mind roughing it for this last trip, so we'll see what it's like. I can always try to upgrade on the train itself; that is usually possible, and you pay the porter the difference. It was much cheaper this way anyway; less than US$10 for a 26 hour, 1279 km (795 mile) journey. The AC cars are 3 times as much.
I get to Chennai (formerly Madras), the big city down there, on Tuesday at 10pm or so, too late to head out that night. I'll spend the night at a retiring room in the train station itself, or more probably at one of the guest houses nearby. Early the next morning, I want to leave for Pondicherry, a town I've always wanted to see. It was a French enclave, the one place left to them by the British, and still has a French feel to it apparently. Wednesday is, appropriately enough, Bastille Day, which is celebrated there with parades and other festivities. I'll arrive as early as I can (it's a 4 hour bus trip from Chennai), and spend 5 or so days there, depending on how I like it.
From there I plan to visit Mamalapuram, a friendly traveler's enclave on the beach, with seafood restaurants and palm trees and temples. I'll relax there for another 5 days or so, doing nothing but reading and eating and walking. (I look forward to visiting Krishna's Butter Ball, a large, precariously balanced stone formation. Oh how Krishna loves his butter.)
The other place I plan to see on this little trip is the holy town of Tirupathi, and the nearby temple at Tirumala. It's a famous Hindu pilgrimage site, apparently attracting more religious visitors than Mecca, Jerusalem or Rome, though it gets very few Western tourists. I want to end my year in India with a visit there, to express my love and gratitude for the time I've had here, ending it with a spiritual focus, as a resident, an Indian by nature if not by birth, and not as a tourist, not as an outsider. I will walk with the thousands of pilgrims to spend a few moments with the deity, and give great thanks for this amazing year, before I leave this country, and head back to my real family.
I'll have a few days in Mumbai when I return, and I will, as I have been doing in these weeks since I returned from Hampi, enjoy my beloved city. I've been taking long ambles around town, talking to the people, visiting my favorite restaurants, shopping for mementos (and pretty things for Heather), and enjoying the ambiance. Tonight I walked home from Waterfield Road and Linking Road, after drinking lemon tea at a new bakery there.
The other night, I walked home from Juhu beach. Actually, the linked map was not my route. I walked directly from Point A to Point B, through no man's land. I walked as far on the beach as I could, a beautiful seaside walk along the Arabian sea with joggers and young couples and families, enjoying the respite from the ever-present monsoon rains, until the sea encroached and blocked my path. I turned East, inland, and found myself in the middle of the poorest slum I have seen here. On the google map, it's just empty, and it's true that there were no roads, no cars, no rickshaws. There was only semi-permanent, hastily built homes, with blue tarps as walls and roofs, and thin beams of recovered wood in the corners for structure. The alleys between them were so narrow that you had to turn sideways to pass anyone, with only garbage and mud underfoot. There was no electricity, just the light of fires and wood stoves, and no running water. I was lost. I was looking for a rickshaw but was in the middle of this neighborhood, with nary a vehicle to be found.
In any other country in the world, I might have been scared to be in such a neighborhood. But not in Aamchi Mumbai, my Mumbai, my India. I felt as safe and at home as I do anywhere here. I asked a local man to point me toward a rickshaw, and he told me to follow him for a while. (Though the only word spoken between us was "rickshaw".) He led me deeper into the neighborhood (I am reluctant to call it a slum, though anyone would), and then pointed for me to continue, mysteriously saying "boat". I looked in the direction he was pointing, and it was darker, and muddier, and more desolate. Could that be the right way? But I went with my heart and trusted him, and continued, my feet sinking into the mud as I approached the banks of a small inlet of water. It was very dark by then, and before I realized it, I came to the edge of the water, and a small wooden raft. Across the water, i could see lights and vehicles and the rest of the city. I had to cross the water to get to my rickshaw. There was a boy on the small raft. It was about 10 feet square, and he was about 10 years old. I climbed aboard, and he pushed his big bamboo pole into the bottom of the waterbed, and ferried us across. I thanked him with 2 rupee, and carefully stepped off. I walked in the direction I knew had to be right, and after a couple dark blocks, came to a busy street, filled with rickshaws and vendors selling things on the streets, and small shops. And i recognized it! It was the road I always drive down on my way to Juhu. I knew where I was! It was close enough to my neighborhood, so I walked along the road. I stopped at one vendor selling sheets, I had bought some from him a month or so ago, and he recognized me, beamed a smile at me when he saw me, and started to show me more sheets. I wasn't buying that night, but I smiled back. I finished the walk back, got home, washed my feet, and settled into my apartment. What a night, what a walk through the city, parts I had never seen, until coming to parts I recognized. I do so love it here. But I'm also ready to come back.