November 9, 2012

Breaking the Budget (Mysore, Karnataka, India - Part 1)

It happened faster than we had hoped. Tom got a cold and a nasty eye infection. I was desperate for a hot shower. While in Fort Cochin (read about it here), we made the impulse decision to skip Munnar (too many tourists) and Wayanad (too much rain) and head straight for Mysore to catch the last 2 days of the Dasara Festival (also spelled Dussehra), a 10 day festival celebrating the victory of truth over evil and the day when the Hindu Goddess Chamundeshwari killed the demon Mahishasura. The highlights of the festival are seeing the Maharaja's Palace lit up with over 100,000 lights and watching the parade on the final day. We were anxious to get to Mysore, but couldn't find a reasonably-priced home stay, guesthouse or hotel room anywhere in the city on short notice. Realizing that one of the things we promised each other when we planned this trip was that we'd splurge on a nicer hotel when we were sick or burnt out…and that we were both sick and burnt out, we booked 4 nights at the Fortune JP Palace Hotel in Mysore. We got it for a "steal" on the Indian travel website Agoda, but it still broke the budget…and we didn't care. We booked an overnight bus from Fort Cochin (really, from nearby Ernakulam) to Mysore and prepared ourselves for a night of no sleep and terrifying driving. The bus didn't disappoint. The driving was terrifying and we didn't sleep.
Isn't it beautiful?
Just seeing this picture helps me imagine air conditioning and clean sheets.
Arriving at the JP Palace was like arriving at mecca. I immediately took the longest, hottest shower I could stand, and we laid in bed and watched cable for several hours, while simultaneously worshipping the air conditioner and the constant WiFi access. That first day, after our showers, lunch at the hotel (overpriced and underwhelming), and a delightful nap, we took a rickshaw/tuktuk/auto to the palace to see it lit up. As we approached, a gypsy girl latched onto my arm and hair and with wide, kohl-rimmed eyes tried to convince me to buy a poorly-made necklace, or a bad hair extension in fluorescent colors, or just to give her money. After saying no several times while briskly walking (and her still holding on to my arm and hair), I had to literally shake her off. And I felt horrible. She was just a child and this is her life. This was the first time I noticed how quickly Tom and I started turning on blinders to this kind of poverty or lifestyle. Our research told us that you should never give money directly to beggars. This could cause them to get beaten up by onlookers who want the money, or could result in swarms of other people surrounding us, wanting some money also. It's a really difficult situation to be in. It may seem harsh, but it's what we have to do. We have plans to volunteer while here in India, and we hope that will help counteract all the times we say no or aren't able to help an individual on the street. Still feeling guilty, we joined a crush of people entering the palace grounds.

It was stunning! 

Tom & his new friends
It was a really fun atmosphere - families were laughing, kids were running around, young couples were walking together. Tom was Mr. Popularity. Teenage boys were constantly running up to him, asking his name and where we're from, and then asking Tom if they can be friends on "The Facebook." They wanted us to be in their pictures and they made jokes about Tom's height and shook our hands. Seeing the palace lit up was incredible. Not only is the palace covered with the lights, but the structures surrounding the grounds are lit as well, and you really do feel like you're in the middle of something royal. 

Feeling like my SF self
After leaving the palace, we went to the Exhibition - a space full of vendors, shops, street food, and carnival rides - and walked around for a few hours before giving in to our exhaustion (and the temptation of HBO) and heading back to the hotel, having cocktails, and watching bad TV.

The next day was the Dasara parade, beginning at 1:30pm and we arrived in the sweltering heat at KR Circle around 11:00 to get a spot to watch the procession. After dealing with the crowds before the parade (details on crowd-issues here), I realized I couldn't stand with the masses for much longer and we spotted some elevated carts that had been lined up behind the sidewalk where the owners were charging to let people stand on them. 150 rupees later (about $3), we had a nice, elevated view of the parade route and a much smaller crowd to deal with. As the parade began, we were further relieved to be on our perch - the crowd was MASSIVE and people were pushing and forcing people against the guard fence. There were more people than I'd ever seen in my life. The police force was yelling and waving their billy clubs at people to stop the stampede. No strangers to dealing with massive crowd control, they were finally successful, but I would have FREAKED OUT if we'd been in those pushing, swarming crowds.

The parade was amazing - there were costumed elephants with their tusks covered in gold, dancers, drummers, jugglers, floats and the king riding on a gold-gilded throne atop an elephant. 

Check out a compilation of the videos we took at the parade:

After the parade, we retreated to our hotel thinking, "If we're going to break the budget, we might as well USE it as much as possible!" Our plan was to relax a bit and then go out later that night to take part in the rest of the festivities. We didn't though. We showered some more. Ate some more (overpriced and underwhelming) food. Drank Kingfisher beers. Draped ourselves over the air conditioner. Showered again. Watched bad movies. Slept peacefully. Woke up and showered again. It was divine.

More on Mysore in the next post! Or you can get a sneak peek at our pics here.

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