Madurai to Kanyakumari; Three oceans, two buses and one bad, bad hotel

There wasn’t a chance we’d make it to the Gandhi Museum in Madurai - the time was just too tight. It opened at nine, but Sheryl had to pick up her new dress at ten. Bringing our packs to the museum wasn’t an option, and since it was all the way across town near the bus station we’d have had to go there, come all the way back to pick up the bags, and cross town again to get to the bus station. We couldn’t figure out a way to make that happen while still catching a bus at a reasonable time so that the six-hour trip to Kanyakumari didn’t get us there too late. We reluctantly sacrificed the Gandhi museum, figuring that all of the information is available somewhere online anyway - with the exception of the bloodstained loincloth he was wearing when he was assassinated, and I didn’t really feel ghoulish enough to need to see that.

We caught an eleven o’clock bus, after the usual difficulty finding the right one. Madurai’s bus station is huge - there are eight sections with twenty or so platforms each. A helpful sign that had English names told us we needed section 8, but from there we were on our own and had to start asking guys in brown bus-drivers’ uniforms. We turned down an expensive private air-conditioned express bus in favour of the much cheaper government bus (50 rupees each versus 120), which may have been a mistake. The trip took six long, hot, slow, boring hours. Lots of fields. I started out feeling road-trip excitement, but as the bus filled up and I couldn’t reach the window to take pictures anymore, that brief flare of enthusiasm waned. There was one moment somewhere around hour five that made it all worthwhile, when I saw that both sides of the road were lined with almost painfully bright emerald green rice paddies, with mounds of huge boulders rising from their perfect flatness.

We were reminded once more of the hazards of taking buses when you don’t speak the language or read the alphabet. The bus we were on went only to Nagercoil, about 20km short of Kanyakumari. We knew we had to go through Nagercoil, but we’d thought the bus was going further. We’ve noticed this once before in Tamil Nadu, that people will tell you a bus is going to a given destination (or at least make a “yes” gesture) when really you’ll have to change buses. The communication failure is obvious, I guess - they’re interpreting out one-word question of “Kanyakumari?” as “Does this bus go in the right direction for Kanyakumari?” rather than “Does this bus go to Kanyakumari?” Understanding the problem doesn’t mean I can do anything about it, though. Just as we noticed that the bus was emptying, the conductor and a half-dozen of the passengers began yelling and waving at us, and pointing at the next bus over. We realized it was waiting for us and ran for it, nearly getting creamed by a third bus. We tossed in our bags, jumped in after them and the bus tore out of the terminal instantly.

It was another half-hour from Nagercoil to Kanyakumari. Very crowded, very sweaty, very hot. So hot, in fact, that when I looked at my phone to check the time, I realized that the steamy interior of my pocket was so hot that the phone had overheated and crashed. Everybody was very friendly. I started out standing with Sheryl’s pack (mine was wedged under the conductor’s seat) but soon the other passengers had vacated a seat at the back and waved me into it. I can never convince anybody that I’d rather stand. It causes such consternation that I always give in to keep the peace. Poor Sheryl had the worst of it, though - the conductor was right behind her blasting his whistle in her ear.

But finally we realized we were getting close to Kanyakumari. The land around the town is blanketed with wind-farms. There were literally thousands of turbines of all shapes and sizes - some spinning and some stationary. Sure enough we pulled into town, and I was enough on the ball to follow the route we were taking and get us off the bus at the main corner closest to our hotel, so we didn’t have to walk the half-kilometre back from the bus station. It was after six o’clock by this time and starting to get dark. We’d been on the road for more than seven hours, exhausted, dehydrated and shell-shocked, and we stumbled off the bus like refugees from a natural disaster.

Kanyakumari is the legendary place at the very southernmost tip of India where three bodies of water meet - the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal. It’s very much a tourist destination for both Indians and foreigners, so there was that familiar carnival atmosphere of people on holiday and the locals who prey upon them. It’s a small place - only thirty or forty thousand people. The main road runs north-south, anchored by the town’s big temple at the southern end near the water, and a few large roads cross it. Most of the hotels are clustered around the north crossroads - except for ours, which was right beside the temple on a bazaar side-street lined with brightly-lit stalls selling all manner of things we didn’t need and nothing that we did. We’d made a reservation at a very cheap place that our guidebook called “spotlessly clean” and was nothing of the sort. It wasn’t quite as nasty as the fleabag in Kanchipuram, which still takes the prize, but it was very close. I don’t think it had ever been cleaned, it was filthy. Dirty linen. Swarming with mosquitoes. A giant roach hanging out completely unconcerned by what little daylight came through the dirty window glass. I evicted him roughly with a broom, but I couldn’t do anything about the mosquitoes. The walls were actually streaked with black dirt. To my pleased surprise, though, the squat toilet (porcelain hole in the floor) didn’t smell at all. For 200 rupees a night, it will do - it’s the cheapest place in town. I still won’t touch the sheets or pillows though.

As we were checking in, the manager asked me sotto voce if I wanted any beer. After such a long and hot day there were few things in the world I wanted more, and I took the liberty of imagining that Sheryl might feel the same way. Beer is variously frowned upon or forbidden in most of the smaller towns here in India, but any place there are foreign tourists, there’s someone willing to facilitate. It came in a plain shopping bag snuck in by the self-styled “room service man”. He was the same one who asked us if we wanted any laundry done. Normally, of course, we wash our own clothes, but laundry was the last thing I wanted to do right then. It was worth it, even though it wasn’t especially cheap at 14 rupees per piece (socks count as two pieces, naturally, but given the state of my socks I don’t think that was unreasonable). Once I realized that the Room Service Man was going to inspect the clothes before taking them away (possibly to wash himself, it wasn’t clear) I surreptitiously removed Sheryl’s underwear from the bag.

Since, apparently, we hadn’t learned our lesson, we checked our guidebook for a good place to eat dinner. The place we chose turned out to be an uninspiring hotel restaurant full of white people. I’m not kidding, every occupied table in the half-full place held a bland-looking white tourist couple. It was embarrassing. I don’t know who wrote the Kanyakumari section of the 12th edition of the Lonely Planet India, but whoever they are they should be punched in the head until they promise never to write another word.

After dinner we walked through the busy bazaar down to the water’s edge, to see the fabled meeting of the three waters. It was dark, so we couldn’t see much, but we could certainly smell it. The little strip of rocks and sand smelled like a public toilet and was covered in trash. All the young local guys were hanging around there, all practicing their menacing stares. The locals here are very hostile to tourists, foreign or Indian. It’s very much a tourist town here, and I understand that dynamic very well from having lived in one, so I can understand and sympathize with their impotent, circular hatred. But I get scarier things than them free in my breakfast cereal, and I’ve got a pretty good ugly stare myself, so I wasn’t especially impressed. Still, as we cut back around the temple wall to our hotel, there was a moment when I thought there might be trouble coming, but it passed.

The night was sickeningly, feverishly, pestilentially hot and sweaty. The power went out for an hour. I’m not sure if it was our hotel or the whole town. You’d think with all the wind-farms around that electricity wouldn’t be a problem, but no air was moving anywhere in town that I could feel. The gasoline generator was directly outside our door and deafening, but at least it let us have the ceiling fan on for a little while. Sheryl can’t have the fan on while she sleeps, though, so the room was a sweatbox. Freed by the absence of a fan, the mosquitoes settled in droves. All we could do was to spray ourselves and the bed with repellent and hope that it would be enough.

Kanyakumari has not made a good impression on me, so far.

Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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