Darl's adventures in India: part three.

One thing I'm conscious of in writing this is that I must be careful not to alienate you. It's a fine line to tread: I shouldn't supply too much detail, because then you'll feel as lost and bewildered as I did when I first arrived here in Tamil Nadu, but then I mustn't not give you detail because that would be, well, boring. My limited experience of other people's gap year tales is that they become a confusing swirl of amazing Amazonian white water rafting, dinners of raw fish, and spiritual moments with gorillas. I have tried to avoid this, because it wouldn't really mean anything to you, at home, to read any of this: it's just too remote. With this caveat in mind, I'm going to talk, only briefly, about some things I have done out here.

Two weeks ago, I went to the temple town of Rameswaram, the closest Indian settlement to Sri Lanka: so close, in fact, that the police presence is very large. The town's island is connected to the Indian mainland by a causeway for road and rail that is about 5km long and horribly precarious.

The views from this sleepy fishing town-come-pilgrimage centre are as idyllic as you could wish. The sands are white, the sea is painfully azure, the palm trees loll over the water at their infinite leisure and little fishing huts cluster with ludicrously picturesque ease around the swathes of beach. Swimming in the Ocean - so salty it almost supports you entirely - is of course a must, as is visiting the small shrines that dot the coastline. As is burning your shoulders so badly they peel for two weeks.

When the tide goes out, these coastal shrines tower over virtual deserts that stretch as far as you can see, and quite probably further: the sea here is very tidal indeed. When you're done beaching, head back into the town itself to Rameswaram's temple: one of the most important sites of worship in South India.

Two branches of worship, usually quite different, are united in this temple. Here it was that Rama (an incarnation of Ganesh- the elephant headed God that you will recognise, whether you know it or not) worshipped Shiva. Thus worshippers of both Ganesh and Shiva (two thirds of the trio of high Hindu Gods - Vishnu is missing) come here. Boasting 22 wells (teerthams) all of which have different healing properties, pilgrims flock here in vast numbers. The temple site is very large, and the corridors alone stretch for kilometres. It's a veritable hive of spirituality, and you do feel very intrusive just wandering around. It is easy to get lost, and end up inadvertently in the Hindu-only sanctum of the temple.

Once you're there, however, everyone will be very nice to you. You'll be taken around all twenty-two wells, and your last set of dry clothes will be drenched as bucket after bucket of purifying and slightly salty water is tipped over your head. You'll then be led through the rest of the inner parts of the temple that you're not meant to see, including an enormous cow carved out of a single piece of marble, and the site where Rama worshipped Shiva. Your forehead will then be smeared with sacred flour, and you will wander out of the temple feeling utterly dazed, and not a little disrespectful for having done all this without the least inkling of its significance. So you might then want to go home and read about it.

That evening, it might be a nice idea to drive out to the very tip of the peninsula on the roof of a truck, and watch the sun set, orange and flame-red, on a horizon that is almost entirely sea.

See? That's why I haven't told you what I've been doing. Because you all hate me now! My sister told me it was fortunate I hadn't had any spiritual gorilla experiences because she would break my legs. Now at the sound of rumbling crowbars I feel fear.

Last weekend I went back to Kodaikanal, the hill station I wrote about last. This time I used my time rather better. I think I've already talked about the Kodaikanal view: it's just silly. You shouldn't be able to see that far. It doesn't make sense. Anyway.

I found it an enjoyable way to spend my time getting up at about 5am, well before sunup, and trekking through the weird gathering half light 4 miles to a rocky outcrop called Pillar Rocks, because of the drama of the... rocks. From there you can see the sun rise over the enormous plain, and see the shadows that the hills cast over it in the misty golden light. Watching a day break is something I'd never done before, but it was utterly worth it. Walked back and dined on raw fish omelette! Oh, yes. Omelette. It was good. It was very good.

After breakfast we set off again, this time to Suicide Point; an outcrop of rock that juts out 6 metres over a sheer drop, entirely unsupported. In the gently swirling mist, the feeling of being suspended unimaginably high was palpable. The walk there and back was more of a 5 mile scramble each way through jungle, up and down rock faces, surrounded constantly by very large, inquisitive and aggressive monkeys. All that's missing is the rafting.

Joking aside, all this 'experiencing' if you will, has made me think. Obviously, part of the point of my being here is to do these extraordinary and unrepeatable things, but all the same you have to wonder to what extent by immersing yourself so thoroughly in 'culture' and 'experiences' you are actually cheapening it. Yes, Indian people get up at 5am, but they do agricultural labour and not trekking. What I'm trying to say is that this cultural tourism - which I am very much enjoying, don't misunderstand me - seems a little false, a little forced. Something feels not quite right. It's not that out here volunteers do things because they have some notion that they Should Be Done: they do have genuine interest, but at the same time you're conscious that Indian people don't live their 'culture' - if you'll forgive my abuse of the word - at this ferocious pace, and that really you take maybe a year or two to see Tamil Nadu and really get under its skin. If that would be enough time.

I think I'm going to post this now, even though I still haven't talked about the treatment of women here or the poverty or the smells or anywhere near enough.