So here I am, 12 days into the trip, sitting in a cafe perched on a cliff top, watching waves roll and crash on black rocks which litter the shore like giant mossy footballs of the gods. The Muezzin’s gentle call to prayer ebbs and flows on the breeze, eagles circle and soar in the moist salty air. The Iris shaped horizon stretches to infinity, as dolphin backs ripple the surface of the sea…
I am in Varkala, on the south western tip of the Malabar coast, nestling in the Lakshadweep sea, Kerala, India. And after my first stop (Fort Cochin), this is the first place I’ve truly felt at peace and able to rest and relax.
The other stops on my (short) journey to date are:
1. Fort Cochin (5 days): Sunsets over Chinese fishing nets, 15th century Portuguese churches and synagogues, mildewed and decaying staccato buildings, all enveloped by a warm, friendly and surprisingly peaceful atmosphere. Definitely a spot to visit in the future.
2. Munnar (2 days): Seat of your pants 4.5hr bus journey winding slowly up the mountain passes. Incredible scenery, powerful waterfalls, lush deep green hillsides covered in a blanket of tea bushes. Piercingly beautiful purple flower every 12 years…
3. Periyar (2 days): Wild life sanctuary/national park. Thick rain forest jungle, evil squirming leeches, wild elephants, hooting langours, giant (rat like) squirrels, thundering bison, bear holes (stop snickering Fussey), punishing treks up, over and through impossibly steep hills.
4. Varkala (3+ days): Tranquil setting, fierce thundering surf, scimitar shore, dragonfly’s, eagles, dolphins, deep blue shoals of fish, palm fringed cliffs, cool cafes and the wandering travellers soul.
The weather to date has been mixed, the monsoon rains are still around, weeks after they should have ended. Damn global warming! Most days are laden with thick moist air, dark brooding clouds grow fierce in the humid afternoon heat, releasing warm raindrops the size and weight of pennies in every downpour. Everywhere that is except Munnar where I froze my nuts off in the nights and caught a stinking cold.
Here are some insights from the trip so far:
1. People: The ‘local’ people are gentle, warm, friendly and gracious. They posses an undefinable innocence and optimism. They definitely wear their hearts on their sleeves. If they like you, they show it, such a contrast to the UK where affection and warmth are restricted currencies. Keralan’s have the highest literacy rate in India, and it shows. The majority speak English, are polite and well mannered. They all have three stock questions when you first meet them: 1) What’s your name; 2) Where are you from 3) Are you married – after I reply they give me a sorrowful look of pity and if you’re lucky a 4) of what do you do.
The men and women have dark chocolate skin, with fierce eyes, but break into beaming smiles in an instant. Moustaches are thick, bushy and worn with pride by many of the men. Public displays of affection are commonplace but exclude the opposite sex. Male friends walk hand in hand or clasp each other round the shoulders, it certainly seems strange at first, but quickly feels like the most natural thing in the world.
Most of the tourists are European. French, Dutch, German, a few English, Israelis and Americans. They come in three flavours:
i. Wanky hippies: These idiots are the most annoying! Dressing in local Indian dress, telling me to take 20 hour bus journeys “for the experience”. Possessing a desperate and earnest need to appear Indian, but only succeeding in being incredibly patronising. As if shaving your head (woops, strike one for me), dressing in a lunghi, and calling yourself Shanti were all it took.
ii. Uptight colonial tourists: These are the steadfast red-necks who arrive and immediately complain about the weather, food, service, toilets, and bargain harder than a camels arse or don’t bargain at all. They frequently walk, talk and dress inappropriately.
iii. travellers: Thankfully the majority of people so far are ‘travellers’. Slightly green around the edges, naive, but respectful of the people and culture, eager to learn, laid back and peaceful. Here to broaden their minds and refresh their spirit.
2. Food: Fantastically cheap – a good three course meal coming in at 2-4 GBP, but surprisingly not as good as the food available in the UK. I’ve been told the local food improves the further north you go. Local specialties here tend to center around fish. Some vegetarian samosas bought for 8p in a 5 minute stop over at a bus station are the best Indian food so far.
3. Accommodation: Numerous places to stay, varying in quality, all have a damp musty air penetrating everything in the room. I’ve opted for mid-range, which usually consists of a noisy ceiling fan and an en suite ‘bathroom’. Think fawlty towers set in India. Still with prices from 450-1000 rupees (6-12 GBP) it’s very cheap by western standards. But not really that pleasant, a place to crash but not rest.
4 travel: The main modes of transport are bus or train for long journeys and bus or auto-rickshaw for shorter journeys. The driving here has to be seen to be believed. Not the worst I’ve seen (that’s a tie between Indonesia and Malaysia). In Star Wars Luke Skywalker hears Obi wans voice telling him to “Use the force”, he switches off autopilot and flys manually on instinct alone. Well picture hundreds of force using Luke-Vinder skywalkers on the roads and you should get the impression. At first it appears to be wild, uncompromising chaos of the worst kind. Head on traffic coming towards you in your lane, three vehicles overtaking at once, driving on the wrong side of the road through blind bends, vehicles approach each other at ramming speed, no headlights, no indicators, and occasionally (like my bus) no brakes! After 10 minutes you start to see some method in the madness, a fluidity, everything swiftly moving in to all space. Unlike in the west, Indians use sound to help navigate. The vehicle horn is in constant use, telling the other road users: I’m here, I see you, get out of the way, or thanks.
As I’m typing this I’m aware it’s drifting from it’s original purpose of being a blog. I’ve had loads of experiences that I want to relate. But I’m not altogether sure they’ll be that interesting. I may try to include one or two in each post, but that depends on your comments/feedback, so let me know!
A highlight of my time in Fort Cochin was my attempt to get a hair cut. I strolled around looking for a barber, and found a ramshackle shoppe (that’s how it was spelt), in the Muslim quarter of town. Hygiene and cleanliness were not the first words that sprung to mind. I wanted a shaved head, so wasn’t that fussed about it. I asked the guy how much in part mime, part English.
It’s accepted practice that foreigners are charged more for some services. So an Indian (local) will pay 5 rupees for an auto-rickshaw but a Westerner 15. But when a local who is not used to dealing with foreigners is asked for a price they all do the same thing. They pause for an age, they look up and to the left, eyes roll back into their forehead and they ponder how much they can get away with, mouth agape. This guy increased the price 5 times, but using my, I’m from India/Punjab routine I managed to bargain to 2.5 times the price. All lighthearted of course.
He offered to push me to the front of the queue but I refused. An hour and a half later I sat in the 1920’s Chicago gang land swivel chair and he began. I insisted he use a new razor, it’s a very scary feeling having someone use a cut throat razor on your head, sliding with equal pressure over delicate veins gives you an absolute stillness! When he finished my head looked awful! It was all creased with hills and valleys, shrivelled like a prune. The barber spoke little English but was impressed and pointing at my head started repeating the word genius! We both cracked up when I realised what he meant. My head looked like a brain with all it’s lumps and folds. This spurned him on to call me Mandrake (I think he meant Chinese), and then Buddhist. You don’t get that sort of treatment at Toni and Guy.
Anyway I left feeling sheepish, and very aware of my shiny white, not quite smooth head. Thankfully the hair is growing back already, so I don’t have to looking like baldy Stephen Mitchell for much longer.
Aware that this is now frighteningly long (don’t give me any crap about that in the comments JR), and some of you drones are reading this during your hectic and stressful lunch breaks – I think I will sign off here. I’ll write an update soon. Maybe when I hit Goa (if I do). Please use the comments box below to leave feedback, and don’t forget to email occasionally!