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Red-garbed pilgrims at Sri Rangam Temple in Trichy
I don't think we're actually allowed to be here.

 

A priest, at least that's what I'm calling him because I don't know my way around a Hindu temple yet,  offers a metal  tray to the middle-aged woman who just maneuvered her way through the small door cut in the rock. She gives him a plastic bag of leaves and flowers, which he distributes methodically behind him, on and in the altar.  Dan and I crane our necks trying to see what's happening without getting in the way. 

 

The priest sets a burning candle on his tray and the woman cups it with both hands, almost stroking it.  Our two new friends, the reason I'm assuming we haven't been asked to leave the inner sanctum, give a few coins to the priest and do the same, and motion for us to follow. I ask them how and what it means, but before they can satisfy curiosity a horde of boys and young men push through the small door and we back off to give them room.

 

Our friends dab ash on their foreheads and we go outside to look down on the city from our 80-meter perch on Rock Fort, Trichy's tallest landmark. They seem to find it strange we don't know what to do in the temple, but don't really comment on it, just waggle their heads from side to side. Everyone we talk to does this bobbing headshake, but we haven't yet pinned down what it means when they do it. Yes? No? OK? Maybe a mixture. We chat to the men about Trichy and the view, but they're in a hurry to get back down the 300 or so steps to the bottom of the giant rock outcrop and we still want to take some photos, so we say goodbye with many handshakes and an exchange of business cards.  From a Western viewpoint, you'd think we'd known each other for years, not just the last fifteen minutes. 

 

But that's how it's been during our time in Trichy, and even waiting in the Kuala Lumpur airport before we arrived. Our interactions have been extremely friendly--people want to stop and chat, or just say hello, or simply shake hands. It's the friendliest place we've ever been.

 

We spent the first day here exploring, wandering side roads and just getting a feel for things. I keep wanting to compare it to China—the dust, the crowds of people, the noise, the sanitation. But really, this town looks more like some of the ones we saw in Thailand and Cambodia. It's low-rise and, although it's a city by population, it looks more rural than it is.

 

The second day we ventured to Rock Fort, and the temples to the Hindu god Shiva that have been built into it.  We explored a few streets of the bazaar at its foot, bought a Punjabi shirt for Dan and got persuaded to wear ropes of flowers in my hair by a woman so zealous she braided  my hair for me and gave me her own bobby pin.

 

Our third day we saved for the biggest temple in Tamil Nadu—Sri Rangam. This 600-year-old island temple dedicated to Vishnu has eleven walls around it and 21 gopurams (tall, almost Aztec-looking towers). The tallest gopuram is more than 72 meters tall and is painted in eye-catching pastels, mostly blue and red; we saw it clearly from the top of Rock Fort the day before.

 

For this trip we decided to hire a guide so we could start to understand the mythology of the Hindu temples; after the tour was done, I realized I still have a lot more reading up to do! Vishnu, one of the three gods Hinduism worships, has 10 incarnations, if I remember the guide correctly. These incarnations are called avatars, and each avatar has a special history, and, I'm supposing, special attributes to worship. The gods (and their avatars?) also have wives, and brothers, and servants... a lot to take in on just one tour.

 

A lot of the fun of visiting temples in China was surreptitiously watching the worshipers; it's the same here but it doesn't seem like we have to be so secretive. Several people came up asking for their pictures to be taken.   We also watched a family getting their portraits done after the kids had had their ears pierced. The kids had shaven their heads, been blessed by the priest and had their ears decorated with big gold studs. This is an important ceremony here, the guide said.  I'm intrigued to find out if this is important all over India, or just here in Tamil Nadu—everything we learn about India brings to mind even more questions.

 

Next stop: Tanjore, a trip graciously suggested by a man we met at the airport in Kuala Lumpur.


**Click here to see our photos of Trichy**

**Click here to check out Indian food**

**Click here to see our travel tips for Trichy**

 
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India.

Wow.

We arrived at Tiruchirappali (Trichy for short, otherwise variously spelled Tiruchchirappalli, Tiruchirapali and Tiruchirappali) as the sun hung low over Tamil Nadu, India's southernmost state.  From the airplane I saw the tan lines of dusty roads and sharp-cornered patches of agricultural green. A thick line of smog added visual levels to our descent, but the sky held out blue all the way to the ground.

We caught a taxi with little fuss and zoomed off in the golden sunset to find a hotel near the bus station.   Women in a rainbow of saris walked the roads beside us; yellow, honking three-wheeled taxis (called autos here) feinted left and right in the traffic; cows chewed grass unmolested. We had arrived.

The next morning we set off to survey our surroundings, feeling like explorers. We walked the wrong way, out of town, along a highway and through villages spliced into the city. Everyone was friendly, throwing us toothy smiles and generous “hellos.”  Nearly everyone spoke English. We ate breakfast for 25 cents, checked out a local supermarket, ate our spicy lunch like the locals—with our hands and off of a plate made from a piece of banana leaf.

In the afternoon we walked the other way, attempting to reach the city bazaar so we could buy some mosquito-foiling long sleeved shirts.  Instead, we found small shrines to many-armed Hindu gods, vegetarian restaurants, hand-painted movie posters, a giant vegetable market and a lot of people wondering why we were walking and wanting to shake our hands.

 
We decided to extend our original sight seeing plan. The temples and bazaars will wait; today was for us to discover India.

 
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Dan, Dan the Strawberry Man
When the people of the Cameron Highlands decided to move into tourism, they threw all their eggs in one sweet basket.


Strawberries.


Walking by the night market in Brinchang, we were amazed by the products we saw for sale: Strawberry-shaped keychains, magnets, pencils. Real strawberries turned into dried fruit, preserves, jams, syrups, tea. Strawberries coated with chocolate, yogurt, and powdered sugar. Strawberry picture frames, strawberry t-shirts.


Coming back to our base of Tanah Rata from one of our 16 km walks we stopped in at the Big Red Strawberry Farm in Brinchang. At the cafe in the visitor center we weren't surprised to find strawberry milkshakes, cakes and treats. But the adjoining gift shop? Someone had scoured the globe for every kind of strawberry product available—from Hershey's syrup to Japanese candy to soaps and plush toys.


Walking to a village where the local Aboriginal people were resettled when the British decided they wanted to hack down the jungle for tea plantations (and strawberry farms) Dan got homemade strawberry-durian flavored ice-cream and we watched girls wearing strawberry-print dresses. Passing us were cars kitted out with strawberry-shaped pillows, strawberry-print seat and steering wheel covers and little plush strawberries dangling from the rear-view mirror.


On our first jungle walk to a short waterfall near the golf course, we found a welcoming gate—festooned with giant, fiberglass strawberries. Finally, inundated by the fruit, we sat down in a homestead strawberry farm and sucked on homemade strawberry Popsicles. An hour later, near our hotel, we found ourselves drinking local tea (thankfully, not the strawberry blend) and smothering fresh-baked scones with strawberry preserves and whipped cream.


So much for our New Year's resolution to cut back on sugar.


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The Highlands, about 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) above sea level, offer clean mountain air and a break from the humidity and heat of Kuala Lumpur.


We were in the Cameron Highlands waiting for our Indian visas to be processed back in Kuala Lumpur. We had thought about another beach vacation or a trip to Malacca, but decided that we'd been inactive enough for the last three weeks in Australia and what we really needed was a few days walking, to get our strength up for whatever will face us next week in India.


Next stop: Kuala Lumpur



**Click here to see our photos from the Cameron Highlands, in our Gallery**

**Click here to see our travel advice for the Cameron Highlands, in our Forum**




 
To celebrate the new year, Dan's mom and stepdad surprised us with a harbor cruise of Mandurah, Western Australia.


Sliding by multi-million dollar homes and searching for dolphins (without luck), it was a different view of a familiar place. We stopped midway for a stroll through a bird sanctuary and some refreshment at the Mandurah Quay restaurant.

**Click here to see our photos of Mandurah**
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