Monday, February 26, 2018

In Search of the Past: Part 10: The Steam Train to Ooty

An old-time steam train! In India! Sign me up!

Long smitten with North India's fabled Darjeeling Himalayan "toy train," I embrace the chance for an equally dramatic and harrowing trip in South India.

Another UNESCO World Heritage site, the Nilgiri Railway climbs Tamil Nadu's Blue Mountains to OotacamundOotyon the steepest track in Asia!

The Indian Railways website is not for the faint of heart. Despite previous online purchases, I strike out this time. Even a five-star hotel concierge in Chennai is unable to crack their system. The Mountain Railway is more than a train ride: It is an iconic ride. My last hope is to go to its downhill terminus in Mettupalayam. 

The afternoon before our only possible departure, we reach the head of a long queue and are advised by the ticket-seller to return tomorrow at 5 am. He gives me a standby chit, which I clutch fiercely. Up at 3:30India so calm and lovely in these early hourswe arrive at the station in the pre-dawn, smoky darkness.

A crowd is milling around the quays. Joining an even longer queue, I learn this is a big holiday weekend, and everyone is traveling.

3rd class is soldout, over-soldout, it appears from the crowded benches. However, there is a slight possibility of no-shows in 2nd classI hang tight to our standby chit, eyes peeled. The ultimate power resides in the hands of a short, dark woman in a navy jacket and long skirt. She is the Ticket Master, inspecting every traveler and seat. 

Tracking her, I see everyone is accounted for. Then, in the very last car, there are two no-shows. I hold her in my glance, and she nods... We're on the train! Squeezing onto one of two facing five-person benches. Within minutes, as darkness fades, the chugs and toots begin... and we are on our way! I collapse in joy and triumph! 

Greetings and introductions are exchanged. Across from us, a family is also traveling up to Ooty for the holiday. Our seat mates immediately offer us food, and it's delicious.

As we wind ever higher in the mountains, there are frequent photo ops. Here I am with two other cabin mates.

Selfies are all the rage. Note the man up top adding water for the steam engine. No one is in a hurry, the journey is itself the goal.

The Ticket Master moves from car to car collecting money. During her visit, we learn she is from a family of classical Indian singers, and she gifts us with a long, lovely performance. It is one of those magical encounters traveling is all about. Our carriage is rocking it, and I'm sorry to see her move on after we clear the next tunnelone of the 16 we pass through. The line also contains 208 curves and 250 bridges. 

Someone getting off and another trying to board.

Besides the many scenic photo ops, there are also station stops for snacks. At one, I buy samosas to share with our cabin mates.

The flagman.

After five hours, we reach our destination. Just in time for lunch.

Next stop: The Queen of the Hill Stations, Ooty.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

In Search of the Past: Part 9: South to Pondicherry

The Coromandel Coast of India. Doesn't that sound romantic? It always did to me, a realm of spices, silks, and warm sea breezes. During the European colonial period, the two main ports were British Madras and, further south, French Pondicherry

During World War II, my novel's character traveled by train south along the coast to Ceylon. Eager to follow her route, I've been trying for months to book seats. But even here, I am unable to crack the arcane procedures of Indian Railways, which, despite being the world's eight biggest employer, seems to have little interest in actually selling tickets.

Although I haven't given up, for this leg, at least, we will go by car. A few hours later, we arrive in Pondicherry, now called Puducherry. Our heritage hotel, Le Coloniale, formerly a private estate, has elegant period decor and a lush garden.

Once here we're eager to explore and begin by tuk-tuk. On the beachfront Promenade, we pass a statue of Gandhi.

French Old Town is a gracious neighborhood of courtyard gardens, tiled roofs, and arty businesses.

We continue on to the port.

Then we're off to the countryside to visit Auroville, a spiritual community based on the utopian ideals of Sri Aurobindo and Mirra Alfassa--the Mother.

The path to the Matrimandir Temple.

The next day I explore French Town's small, leafy streets on foot. Some of the shops feature fabulous art pieces. I am smitten by this reclining Ganesha.

Another Ganesha.

A South Indian Buddhist figure.

A cool bar.

After a hot day of exploring, it's a pleasure to return to Le Coloniale, our biggest decision whether to eat in the courtyard or chic resto-bar.

Too soon we must leave Puducherry. We will drive across South India to Coimbatore--my last chance to obtain tickets for the steam train of my dreams. Filled with foreboding, I prepare for another encounter with the daunting Indian Railways.

Next stop: Coimbatore: The Dhyanalinga Temple and the Steam Train to Ooty