Sunday, January 25, 2009

Windows and Mirrors II

(Please read the post below to preserve the order of these two sections)

On the train to Bangalore, from which we transferred to a Mangalore-bound bus, we shared a compartment with several friendly people. Before boarding we picked up dinner; curd rice (rice and plain yoghurt with spices) for Brendan, and Lemon Rice (hard to explain, kind of like a non-greasy biriyani) for me.

After we finished eating as the train chortled away, we were greeted by a deep, fermented smell. One of our kind cabin-mates had uncontrollable belching gas and did not look one jot happy about it. Every few minutes, from the depths of his kidneys, he released a rumbling, Richter-scale burp that soaked the air with a dark, intestinal stench. I set my will against my gorge and smiled silently as my stomach pickled itself.

Waiting for our bus to Mangalore, from Bangalore - confusing, I know - was quite the adventure. Trying to get a clear answer in India is like playing an extended game of "Who's On First?"

"Is this where we catch the bus to Mangalore?"
"So the bus to Mangalore will come here?"
"You catch the bus to Mangalore here?"
"Oh. You catch it there?"
"Yes - so the bus to Mangalore comes in there."
"Then where does it come in?"
"OK, then we wait here for the bus to Mangalore?"
"No, you are waiting there and bus is coming."
"Coming there?"
"No, coming here, going there."
"Going where?"
"To Mangalore."
"I know. But where do we get on?"
"Here. Or there only."
"Wait, is it here or there?"

(The bus ended up pulling in "here" but stopping "there" after picking up some passengers. I think.)

When we finally arrived in Mangalore, and then Udupi, 24 hours later (yes, you read that right, 24 hours to get across one Indian state). We took KSRTC - the state transit company - which meant that our breaks were all at government-run rest areas.

And let me tell you, the food at these places is fan-freaking-tastic. I had the best vadai of my life at a tiny whitewashed building quite literally in the middle of nowhere; in all directions was a rock-strewn plain. Later on we stopped at a small restaurant at the foot of the Western Ghats, near the Coorg area where cardamom, cocoa and coffee are grown. We weren't hungry but had the most delicious cardamom-spiced deep roastted coffee; easily rivalling Sumatra as some of the best coffee I've ever tasted.

Hampi and Mangalore are mirror images of each other. They have only the red dust in common; otherwise one is at the edge of the great Deccan plateau, the other is a port renowned for spice and coffee exports since the Middle Ages. One is a backpacker town strewn with scantily-clad white women and grungy white men; the other has been influenced by Arab, mostly Yemeni, traders for centuries, has few foreigners and many women wear burkhas. Hampi is full of rickshaw mafia trying to suck you dry like so many vampire bats - Udupi and Mangalore are honest and friendly places. One has crumbling ruins set around a newly developed town; the other is full of crumbling Portuguese-style buildings.

Both Hampi and Udupi are saturated with Iberian and Arab influences:

But Udupi, the smaller of the two and arguably the more pleasant place to stay, is also famed as the birthplace of the humble, yet delicious, dosa:

A far cry from the sad and soggy banana pancakes of Hampi.
(This is, by the way, why so many South Indian restaurants abroad are named "Udupi Palace" or the like.)
I am sorry that I had to include my worst photo here, but the others need to be rotated and this cybercafe computer won't allow that.

Udupi is also the site of a famous Krishna temple, which is awash with foreigners becoming enlightened. It's not Hare Krishna but shares many of the same values and is well-known in the West. The temple is, however, lovely and the people here are lovely. It has three temple chariots ("cars"), all in traditional Karnatakan style. We were lucky enough to see one of them pulled around 'Car Street' - a service performed for devotees who donate a certain amount to that end. Photos of that later; they can't be posted now.

We noticed a lot of similarities, however, with Taiwanese god processionals. Similar sorts of music and dancing, fireworks, large costumed deities dancing, a large chariot/palanquin being pulled along. It makes you wonder if the devotional festivals of India and China have a common root (Buddhism is too young, methinks, and the Buddhist temples of Taiwan don't do this as much as the Daoist ones), but diverged as they split. China's would have died out in the Cultural Revolution, but lived on in Taiwan. Makes you think.

Advertising in India is usually painted on buildings, not just along billboards. At times it is quite photogenic.

...more later!

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