Sri Meenakshi temple

The colourful Sri Meenakshi temple at Madurai

I’d found that the way to survive India was to take everything slowly, deliberately and not to rush. Unfortunately I broke my own golden rule this morning getting out of Varkala.
I’d left plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast – a fabulous Keralan treat of a wheat dosa (a thick, oily pancake) served with chutney – but on paying, the chap didn’t have any change for my big note, and set off on his motorbike to get some. It took him an incredible 45 minutes to come back with the readies, and all the while the time counted down to my train northwards and my stress levels rose above “comatose” for the first time in a month.
Grabbing a hasty taxi to the train station, I realised I hadn’t printed off my e-ticket to show the conductor, which is a ridiculous bureacratic requirement the likes of which abound throughout India. I had both the e-ticket information written down on paper and the original e-ticket webpage saved on my laptop, and yet according to the guy behind the counter in the train station, neither of these were acceptable. I had to have a physical print-out of the ticket. Ridiculous. I considered throwing the guy a philosophical puzzle to mull over to highlight the absurdity of the policy – if I could sketch by hand an exact copy of the e-ticket so that it was indistinguishable from a computer printout, would it be accepted? – but with minutes to the train, I didn’t have time for fun and games and ran over to an internet cafe opposite the station to grab a whirlwind printout. Running back to the station, I was late for my train. Luckily it was nearly ten minutes late itself, so I had time to calm down and slink back into Slow India mode before boarding.
My destination was the city of Trivandrum, a city without a single redeeming feature I can think of to make it stand out from other identically looking (and smelling) southern Indian cities. I roamed MG Road for a decent egg biryani followed up by dessert in the form of chocolate cake from a bakery, before returning to the train station for my onwards train to Madurai.
Indian trains are great. I paid a fiver for a bunk in “3AC” class, an air-conditioned carriage with eight sleeper bunks per section. I had an upper bunk, which was located somewhere far up in the upper stratosphere of the train. As the lower bunk was unoccupied, I sat there for a while opposite a middle-class Indian couple, and fired up a film on my laptop to pass the time. I was astounded when the curious Indian man opposite me got up to peer right over the top of my laptop screen to see what I was watching, and stayed in that position for some seconds to watch. The notion of privacy we have in the UK doesn’t seem to exist in India, perhaps due to the fact that people tend to live on top of each other. Similarly, if you have a magazine, newspaper or book with you and put it down by your side for a second, be prepared – you can fully expect someone near you to pick it up and start reading it without so much as seeking a single word of consent from you.
Arriving late that night into Madurai I wandered the streets for a hotel in which to put my head down for a few hours, finding the Palace Hotel, a delightfully ironic name for a decaying 150 rupee per night pad. The bare walls and Asian-style squat toilet didn’t bother me, as I had something very special to look forward to tomorrow.
Madurai was famed for its glorious Sri Meenakshi temple, and I struck out early to wander the short distance to it, walking its perimeter and checking out the gorgeous four brightly-coloured gompas towering over each of the entrances. On my walk I was approached by a number of scammers with familiar tales. The gist seemed to be that there just happened to be a “special festival” currently running during which a “golden somethingorother” was on display, and that the absolute best place to view it was apparently from an upper storey of the bloke’s shop. You’ve got to hand it to them – these scammers are innovative at getting customers through the door, if completely transparent. I declined such “kind offers” and turned back towards the station to head walk west out of the city, stopping for brekkie in a local restaurant the form of a stupendously large dosa, and then continued on to my rather special destination.
After a month of simple budget to mid-range hotels, I’d decided to treat myself to a night’s stay in a five star hotel. The Heritance Madurai was a former colonial British Clubhouse complex, and had been converted to several dozen luxury villas. Even with the 10% discount I had managed to wangle, for the price I paid for a single night I could’ve stayed in the Palace Hotel for a month, but the hotels had little in common. My air-conditioned, wood-floored villa at the Heritance had a lovely comfy double bed, comfy chairs, a huge open-plan bathroom, and to top it off a small private pool out the back. The staff were as equally laid back as the rooms themselves, and coupled with a luxury breakfast the next morning, my lazy time in the luxury retreat escaping the hustle and bustle of India was worth every single penny.
Though I reckon I was one of the few guests ever staying there who did his laundry in the shower.