In Chennai we got to visit many local friends and were welcomed warmly into their homes. We went to a great New Year’s Eve party at the Bharath residence and even managed to catch up with Holly and Rick, friends from Seattle who are on the road for a couple of years. We saw the apartment Michael had rented 12 years prior and investigated his old haunts. After spending a few days visiting sites within striking distance of Chennai, including the temple complex Mahabalipuram and the cultural center, Dakshina Chitra, founded by the mother of one of Michael’s friends, we took a long journey uphill to the hill station of Ooty and down the other side to Mudamalai Wildlife Sanctuary. Mudamalai and its neighboring biosphere reserve were not like parks we had seen in Africa, where tons of critters are just standing around. Either there are fewer animals in Indian parks or the animals are wary of the massive quantities of humans about and choose to stay hidden. They are also hunted by tribal people in the biosphere reserve, which could be a bit off-putting. We did see a few things, including a stunning, multicolored kingfisher, India’s national bird. (Initials after the photos indicate photo credit: Daniela Rible, Michael McCrystal, Erica Gies.)
Chennai/Tamil Nadu
Michael and Erica arrive at Chennai Central rail station on the night train at the bright hour of 6 a.m. Notice Michael's perky eyes and Erica's judicious use of sunglasses. (DR)
A rangoli at Dakshina Chitra. (EG)
A woman at Dakshina Chitra teaches Michael how to make a toy out of  palm fronds and rocks. (EG)
A man spins silk at Dakshina Chitra. (EG)
At Dakshina Chitra, a woman paints a child's hand with mendhi. (EG)
Terra cotta statues get fresh with Erica. (MM)
Snoozy dog. (MM)
Sculpture on a temple at Mahabalipuram. (EG)
Elephant carvings at Mahabalipuram. (EG)
Huge boulders near Krishna's Butter Ball. (EG)
SuperMichael hefts Krishna's Butter Ball. (EG)
Genevieve is no slouch herself. (MM)
Erica with perspective on Pidari Ratha / Valian Kuttai Ratha at Mahabalipuram. (MM)
Daniela plays Bollywood peek-a-boo around the trunk. (MM)
These boys were prepping a seaside resort for its New Year's Eve celebration, as we ate a meal before heading back to Chennai. (EG)
Puppynap. (EG)
New Year's Eve party at Sandhana. Michael, Jaggu, Raghu, Daniela. (EG)
Uttara and Satyaki. (EG)
Jayashree and Michael. (EG)
Jeeva, Michael, and Daniela. (EG)
Erica, Dushyanth, Michael. (DR)
Charming, I'm sure. (DR)
Holiday rangoli. (DR)
Satyaki and Kaveri. (EG)
Uttara, Kaveri, and Michael get down. (EG)
It's the Marcarena, I'm afraid. Uttara, Daniela, and Kaveri. (EG)
Erica, Michael, and Daniela.
Jayashree and Kaveri. (MM)
Erica and Daniela at the Guindy Race Club (our "hotel") during the dregs of New Year's Eve. (MM)
Elliot's Beach, Chennai, New Year's Day. When Michael lived in Chennai, he rented a place right across the street from here. (EG)
Elliot's Beach, New Year's Day. (EG)
Rick, Holly, Michael, and Erica: Friends from Seattle who are traveling for a couple of years.
Eliott's Beach, New Year's night.  (EG)
Elliot's Beach: Fun with guns. (EG)
Chuches in Besant Nagar. (EG)
Scary rabbits with stubble for sale. (EG)
Michael bonds with the Ganesh destined to be his scooter "hood" ornament. (EG)
This "hotel's" name doesn't conjure up a peaceful night's rest. Luckily it's a restaurant, not a place to lay your head. (EG)
"Hotel" is often a term for restaurant, which indeed, it is in this case, making the name all the more amusing. Holly, Erica, Daniela, Rick. (MM)
A dog snoozes on a speed bump across from Elliot's Beach. (MM)
A Hindu funeral procession momentarily stops traffic in the heart of Chennai. (EG)
Daniela makes some friends. (MM)
At our one stop, venders selling salty snacks rushed the buses. (MM)
Our hotel's slogan, "Perfect Jungle Pleasure," stamped on this pillowcase, was overstating it a bit. The place was pretty bare bones, although the people who ran it were very nice. (MM)
This picture of Green Park's garden makes it look far nicer than it was. Well, actually, the garden was pretty nice. The rooms ... eh. (MM)
This monkey and her newborn were hanging around the ranger station at Mudamalai Wildlife Sanctuary in the Western Ghats. (EG)
Daniela, our guides on a several-hour sunrise nature hike, and Michael. (EG)
The Nilgiris show themselves through the fog, as Daniela squints in the sudden sun at 7:30 a.m. after two hours of trekking. Our guides take a break in the background. (MM)
Michael is also happy to sit for a moment and contemplate the nice gneiss. (EG)
Michael lights out for the territory. (EG)
The biosphere reserve. (EG)
At this camp, the elephants relax, eat, get baths in the river, socialize with other elephants, and get medical treatment for any injuries they may have. (EG)
Getting a drink. (EG)
A mahout paints a ceremonial decoration on his elephant, who is used to such "make-up" at the temple and stands by fairly patiently. (EG)
Still standing ... (EG)
Lookin' good! (EG)
A particularly sweet elephant is asked by her mahout to bless Daniela, who is charmed but slightly icked out by a slobbery, muscular trunk swooshing her way. (MM)
Dental work -- ouch! (EG)
Wild boar. (EG)
Is this how bird flu happens? Regardless, these chickens don't seem to be happy campers in their little tent. (MM)
Spidey and Jesus, together at last. (EG)
Kitty kiosk. (MM)
Hindu gopuram (temple) in Ooty. (EG)
Great sign (presumably about education) in Ooty. (EG)
Jain medical center in Ooty. Note the swastika, a common symbol of good luck and health in India. The word swastika means "health mark" or "being fortunate" in Sanskrit. (MM)
In the States, you can buy vacuum-packed Indian food from India called Tasty Bites. We didn't get a chance to try this restaurant but were intrigued nonetheless. (MM)
Calendars for sale. (EG)
While Muslims and Christians eat beef, they are generally quiet about it. So to have a restaurant proclaiming its wares so loudly made us take notice. (MM)
A vendor balances snacks along the Bay of Bengal, Tamil Nadu. (DR)
Mmm ... bargain thali. Although we had some for Rs 25! (MM)
At the Spencer's Plaza food court in Chennai, a man makes a Bombay specialty, pav bhaji. (MM)
Night scene in Chennai. (MM)
Start Slideshow
School girls watch a peacock dance at Dakshina Chitra, a cultural heritage center that displays original houses and crafts from the four southern states: Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka. It was founded by the mother of Tara, one of Michael's friends. (EG)
Tamil is the main language spoken in Tamil Nadu state, and 18 languages are recognized officially by the national government. However, counts by various groups cite 114, 216, 407, and even 850 languages in daily use in India. (MM)
Part of the Pidari Ratha / Valian Kuttai Ratha temple complex at Mahabalipuram about an hour south of Chennai. Built between the 7th and 9th centuries, Mahabalipuram is a UNESCO Heritage Site showcasing Dravidian architecture. (EG)
Michael and Erica are looking so proper because these elephants were in an out-of-the-way spot, and they disturbed a couple who were having a quiet chat, right where they are sitting. The downlow couple snapped this picture -- and M&E rushed to get out of their hair.
Even the dustbins were monumental. Michael was amazed at the infrastructure improvements from 12 years ago. There is a new, paved toll road from Chennai to Mahabalipuram where there was once a potholed, two-lane road, and the site had improved landscaping and monument protection. (MM)
Besant Nagar, the neighborhood in Chennai near Elliot's Beach: Idlies are a much beloved south Indian food staple. Aside from the fun of saying the word "iddly" or idli," we particularly liked the little drawing of the pile of steaming idlies on this sign. (EG)
Satyaki's family took us out to a lovely dinner at the Madras Boat Club on the bank of the Adyar River. Satyaki's father, Raghu; his mother, Prema; Satyaki; Michael; Holly; Monika, Satyaki's wife; Daniela; Erica.
Holly and Erica waiting for a stupendous New Year's din outside Kaaraikudi, a Chettiar restaurant. The Chettiars are a group of Hindus from the far south of Tamil Nadu who are renowned for their dwellings and their spicy cuisine. (MM)
Michael was stunned to visit his old neighborhood in Besant Nagar, which has become the hip  ‘hood in the 12 years since he's lived there. Case in point: This Barista espresso joint has replaced the apartment across from his old flat, which is the pale green building in the background. (MM)
Man makes fresh lime sodas, the most refreshing drink ever, halfway up the mountain to the hill station Ooty. We took a night train from Chennai to Coimbatore, where we caught a cramped government bus for four hours of switchbacks. (MM)
This area had a national park and biosphere reserve, and several nearby counties (the Nilgiris district) outlawed plastic. So everyone bought and reused jute bags for their purchases. In other parts of India, textile shops bagged saris in jute, and people reused the bags for luggage and shopping. But in this region, compliance was mandatory. (EG)
An elephant gets a bath in the river from his mahout. If you look closely, you can see that he is smiling. He really seemed to love the scrubbing. Note also the periscope nose for breathing. (EG)
Wild elephants. About 600 live in this area, and one night, walking down a very dark street in the tiny village of Masinagudi, a local guy warned us to be careful because he'd just seen some, and it wouldn’t do to run into them on foot at night. Luckily our paths didn’t cross, but the next morning, our waiter was a-flutter because they had been on the hotel grounds overnight. (EG)
Black-faced langur monkey chomps leaves in Mudamalai. We heard them whooping it up, swinging madly through the branches. When they saw us, they got flustered and one swung hard and either missed or intentionally jumped to the ground with a big THUD! The ungraceful way they moved and the noises they made were so comical. (EG)
These "temple" elephants are enjoying two months of R&R at camp. Many Hindu temples own elephants, but the critters spend their time blessing people, don’t get to socialize with other elephants, and may live in big cities.  (EG)
Michael ordered a fresh juice from this man's little business on the main street of tiny Masinagudi, where we were staying, just a few kilometers outside Mudamalai Sanctuary. He and his girls had great smiles but found a photo an occasion for serious expressions. (EG)
These girls in Masinagudi were very excited to follow us as we wandered the three streets of their town, giggling madly, especially when we looked back at them. Getting their picture taken and seeing themselves in the digital playback screen elicited lots more laughter. (EG)
Cows are king (queen?) in India, and Masinagudi was littered with them. I liked the ones with the spotty faces, and this one made herself comfy on the porch of this cement shop each eve. (EG)
We were in Ooty having a meals lunch ( a.k.a., thali), a variety of dishes served with rice and possibly bread. In the south it is sometimes served on a banana leaf, like here. This woman was so pleased that we were eating with our hands (per Indian custom), she invited us to her house to have idlies. She was very sweet! (MM)
The Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram, begun in the 8th century to honor the Hindu god Shiva. The site here is so beautiful, right on the Bay of Bengal. It actually took a direct hit from the tsunami but did not sustain any damage. (EG)
India is a great place to be vegetarian, thanks to the dietary restrictions of Hindus and Jains, but the Nilgiris had a lot of chickens. Although English is one of India’s 18 official languages, Indians use it in a way that amuses the American ear, such as this sign advertising chickens. (MM)
Ooty, with its British history, has more Christians than most of India. And vehicles are considered a fine place to display one's religious proclivities; hence the "Praise the Lord" sign on this bus. But the juxtaposition of that message and the murderous character in the film ad on the billboard next to it was a quintessentially "India" moment that had us rolling. (EG)
Ooty is short for Udhagamandalam, but even Indians call it Ooty. The British made themselves at home here, taking refuge from the near-equatorial heat of southern India's summers in the town's 7349-foot (2240 m) elevation. The British legacy left Ooty posh, full of alien ornamental plants, and more open to serving meat. (EG)
The Nilgiri Mountain Railway, a narrow-gauge train from Ooty to Mettupalayam, was completed in 1899 and has spectacular views. The train travels 28 miles through 208 curves, 16 tunnels, and 250 bridges. These high school seniors from Kerala kept us entertained with songs, gossiping, flirting, and dares to chat with us. (EG)
Daniela, Michael, and Erica in front of Cozee Cafe in Besant Nagar, Chennai, just two blocks from Michael's old apartment across from Eliott's Beach. This was a popular hang-out spot for Michael and his friends.
Daniela and Erica on a Chennai street outside a Fab India, a great textile chain with goods made by villagers. (MM)