South India appears to Westerners as a land of excess syllables. Due to a natural overabundance of M’s, L’s and the letter A, places have names like Ramanathapuram, Tiruvannamalai, Udagamandalam, and Mamallapuram (which is a convenient shorthand for Mahabalipuram). All of these are easier to pronounce if you speak either Malayalam or Tamil. Our poor efforts to pronounce the name of our final stop came out variously as Mallamapamarum, Mamalapurallam, or Mamamamallapuramamallapuram. I could never remember how many syllables there were supposed to be, or what order to say them.
In any case, Mamallapuram is a tiny town on the beach only a couple hours north of Pondicherry. Lonely Planet calls it the village of Backpackistan, due to the abundance of dreadlocked Western yoga tourists. Despite the touristy vibe, the food and lodgings were good and very cheap, and there are some amazing ruins within walking distance from the beach. And considering the state of our weariness and home-away-from-homesickeness, we weren’t sorry to have a few Western comforts at this point in the journey.
This part of India was enchanting: miles and miles of undeveloped ocean front land, the kind where forest grows right up to the dunes. The sand wasn’t as white as Goa, but I was intrigued that in such a crowded country there was so much pristine empty beach. We hired a local guide to tour some of the historical sights and he told us about the 2004 tsunami which revealed several previously unknown ruins when it receded.
Our hotel in Mamallapuram was a minimalist, bright orange cement block on the main road that runs parallel to the beach. An insousciant youth manned the desk. While he filled out the extensive and redundant paperwork required to rent a hotel room (it really is an ordeal in India), I waited in the courtyard. I spotted an apparently domesticated cat on top of a parked car so I went over to say hello. As I approached he suddenly he turned around and looked me in the face, revealing a wet, fleshy gaping hole where his right eye should have been. Stepping back in disgust, I also noticed he was a bit thinner and worse for the wear than he initially appeared from across the courtyard. I decided not to befriend said cat.
After we checked in and dropped our things off we went to get some food. Upon returning to the hotel, Bethany opened the door to find a very startled and haggard-looking feline staring back at us with his vacant socket. He did this from his spot ON OUR BED. After staring at us wide-eyed, the way startled cats look at any strange person, he darted out of the room, but not before completely giving us the creeps. We slept with our windows closed.
Virtually everywhere we went in South India we saw lizards. They were on fences, ceilings, houseboats, and mosquito nets. Mostly geckos, but also some dragon-like larger lizards that seemed like they would feed on rodents. I’ve always loved lizards; they’re like pocket-sized dinosaurs, so I enjoyed seeing the variety in South India.
But these were all just appetizers for the main course: Crocodile Bank. Picture walled pens literally crawling with 400 crocodiles, the largest captive crocodile in South Asia, and a snake venom extraction exhibit. The handlers for the latter come from a long line of venom extractors and have the bite scars on their arms to prove it.
Some of the pens were being cleaned. Local women in saris went about their business scrubbing the water holes while the crocodiles went about their business–still inside the same pen. Nobody seemed the least bit uneasy about the giant man-eating lizards a few feet away. This place also had some of the best signs in all of India.