Kerala the beautiful; the green of a million palm trees, the blue of warm waters. Kerala the red of the sun at set; its light rays refracted to a ruby colour that captivates the mind. Kerala the advanced; an Indian state with amazing reading levels, excellent English, vibrant and – for India – safe roads. Where people duck into little cafés to sample the regions amazing ice-creams. A maze of river inlets and quiet backwaters and small settlements filled to the brim with interesting people. Kerala that is an example to us all, showing that Indians can find a way of peace with East and West and that not all change has to leave people behind. Kerala the only state in the world that has elected a Marxist government; Kerala the communist.
Kerala the heat wave.
As we came down from the cool of the mountains of Ooty, on the famous Nilgiris – Mountain Railway, I couldn’t help but notice the creeping rise of the ambient temperature. It rose and continued to rise. Just when I thought it must surely stop, it didn’t. A few of the European people in the carriage exchanged looks and nervous laughter. One girl sitting near us had befriended us on the way down. This was Gwenny from Holland. I have remarked before that it is the people we have met that really matter in our travels, for they give you a chance to share your experiences, to laugh with someone who has been there and done it too – quite a different feeling than talking to someone back home about the journey. There it is “to”, on the road it is “with”. We had met many: Franco in Australia, Lenin and Bobbits in South East Asia and now Gwenny. We all hit it off immediately, not that we had much choice in talking to her as she talked incessantly to anyone who would listen and could keep it up for hours. As people with the same skills and the same open attitudes, I don’t think we stopped talking for the entire day. Or week.
We decided to continue together as a three.
Catching a succession of busses from the base of the mountains into the heart of Kerala was some experience. Firstly, the mountain bus was old, iron and packed to the gills with locals. Simply getting onto it with all our bags was a challenge enough. It flew down the foothills, winding around the roads and, since we were standing, we were thrown around like rag dolls constantly crashing into seated people and holding onto each other for support. It was funny at first, but after a few hours of standing I actually managed to fall asleep standing up. This bus dropped us at the side of a road and we struggled onto another (they won’t wait for you to get on!), which then bumped off into the traffic and through the outlaying towns towards the nearest city.
Dumped from this bus, we then fought our way into a bus station and after an hour working out how the place could possibly serve up a bus going where we wanted, we got on a bus/coach into Kerala proper and towards our first stop of Kochin.
I want to paint an image for you. If you can imagine Cesca with a backpack on, a large one. Then imagine her having a frontpack of also prodigious size. Now imagine she has another backpack in her right hand. Now that she also has three large shopping bags – the kind you get when clothes shopping – gripped in her left hand. Now imagine she is trying to read the Indian Lonely Planet, which is huge and heavy. Then imagine we have arrived in Kerala in a heat wave.
Now imagine that I have to carry it all for her.
It’s a moment ripe for comedy, and that was the predominant look being given to us by the Indians on the journey. A sort of shocked, laughing, bizarre look, like that given to a giraffe running down Oxford Street. There was pointing.
As the bus carved up the miles into Kerala, the colours started to change. From the reddish browns and deep tea greens of the mountains to the bright sea blues and green palm trees of the coast. Not only that, the buildings changed too. I started seeing brand names and signs of prosperity. The roads improved mile by mile (it’s 314km from Ooty to Kochin) and with a sudden realisation and communal smile shared by our little travelling three, we were in Kerala.
This long and thin slice of India sits aside the tip of that great country. Its main city, and one of the most important cities in the country, is Kochin. It was to the old district of this that we were heading. Towards a maze of Portuguese influenced buildings, churches and the famous beachfront.
Our hostel was really a converted house in the middle of a wide and low street. Even in the dark it had an incredible palatial feel to it, with white walls and gated, large, plantation style houses. All around us the air buzzed. I could have convinced myself that we were in the West if it were not for the goats wandering around. But, unlike most of India where wild animals wander the streets incessantly, here the goats were very clean – and shining white in the street lights – and also wearing collars.
Our host welcomed us and we unpacked in our two rooms. We didn’t know if Gwenny wanted to go her own way now, we wouldn’t have minded as it’s not the “done thing” to place boundaries and conditions on those you travel with, so we didn’t hassle her and went out to dinner.
The area has many western inspired cafes and restaurants tucked in its streets. It is clearly a tourist destination hotspot and the “westerness” of the establishments was higher than your normal Indian-for-Indians fare.
The next day, we ventured out and spent the day walking the streets and browsing the shops. The European influence put us quite at our rest and after that journey we were quite happy to just relax. Eventually our steps took us down to the sea front and we came across the famous Kochin Nets.
Chinese net fishing is ancient and I have to wonder if the nets of Kochin are purely for tourists. Nevertheless, they are one of the most beautiful sights to be seen in India and a classic moment for a photo as the sun moves across the sky. It is one of those spots with a special sort of light. It fair drips, flows in clumps, hovers around creating atmosphere and is quite magical. The beachfront was awash with couples taking it all in. We approached the nets and were waved aboard one for a demonstration.
Now, I must admit that my feelings about such “demonstrations” have changed since that day, and this is probably because the amount of money the crew of the net tried to extort from us is minor to me now. Then it was major and we got quite upset and refused to pay. Anyway, Cesca and I assisted in hoisting up the net and counting out the (very few) fish. We shook our heads appreciatively when we heard the sorrowful tale of the fishermen’s disappearing livelihood. There used to be many fish, you see, but not anymore.
After leaving the nets to the next tourist couple, we went back to the hostel. As a traveller you want as “honest” an experience as possible. Of course you don’t mind paying your way. Or even paying a little extra for being white. However, while I am happy to fool myself that most of these experiences are genuine “moments”, and perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised to find that in such a place as Kochin they will be thin on the ground, I don’t want to simply be a “mark”. After so long on the road I was a black belt master in spotting such thinking in others, as was Cesca. Her reaction to being “marked” was always very negative. She would pay thousands to help a charity, would cross shark infested waters for an orphan, but make her experience cheapened by avarice and she won’t budge an inch.
It’s a difficult situation as, as is probably true here, the fishing net men are really buggered and rely on “donations” to just keep going.
Anyway, the man was mean to a pufferfish and that really tore it.
We met up again with Gwenny that night and we all made plans for moving on from Kochin to having a “real” house-boating experience. Cesca had done all the research. The boat had – simply had – to be a man powered boat with no engine. Those are for tourists, the real experience is in being punted down the backwaters. Sounded idyllic, but I wondered how far we would get along the river by such methods, especially since there was bound to be a tide.
We hitched a ride into the city and fought our way through the ton of boat ride touts to get to the Government run tour agent. This guy sold us a fantastic sounding tour on a riverboat. He raised his eye to the three of us going together, but we explained that we wanted two rooms and that satisfied him. Gwenny could not afford the trip on her own and we felt that we should all go together, which just goes to show that we were getting on famously and avoided a prickly situation of having to leave her behind on her own.
The next morning we turned up and were driven down to the boat for our trip. It was classic looking and made mainly of thatch.
It had two rooms for the guests that were very nice, to the rear a kitchen area and crew sleeping quarters. Up front was a large foredeck with chairs and the dining table. Amazingly the entire boat was made so light that it could be punted by two men; one front, one back. We set off along the river and soon the amazing views were taking all our breaths away and for the first time Gwenny lapsed into silence. Cesca and I lay in each other’s arms and enjoyed the view slipping passed. All I could hear was the peaceful sound of man punting a 40 foot wicker boat, which is an enjoyable sound, and – of course – the sound of Cesca’s camera.
The people who live in the backwaters are incredibly hardy to eke out their lives in the endless winding and very thin paths that line the banks. As we passed by they always waved. Small children shouted the refrain, which I had got so used to in India, of “School Pen!”
Excuse me kind sir, would you mind ever so much in contributing a little charitable something to me? No sir! Put away that wallet! I need no money, for such is not the way we measure riches. No Sir, no blushes, we understand. No, sir, I need something you have I am sure, something you can give that not only will enrich my life, but actually be making a difference, something I will use, a tool kind sir. I am I need of a pen, so that I may write my lessons correctly. Just that sir, a simple pen. For – sir! – I long to be smart like you sir and that pen, that pen… well, I will treasure it, honour it. I will look at it every day in my hand as I learn lessons, but sir, I tell you, no lesson – no sir – no lesson will match that of your generosity in contributing to my future. To India’s future and to you own karma sir, God bless you.
The young man yelled again, “school pen!”
I considered the distance from the boat to the shore. About 20 meters. I calculated that if I was able to get a biro to the required velocity to be able to throw it accurately that far, it would be going fast enough to embed itself in the fellow about 6 inches. Not what he really wanted me to do then. Perhaps it is just something they yell? I was to find out chapter and verse a few weeks later in our journey.
The endless splendour of Kerala drifted past.
Eventually the girls went swimming and announced the current to be lethal.
As the sun dropped we pulled up in an inlet and while dinner was cooking we walked around the river banks. The people we met on our way were all happy to see us and quite happy to be photographed.
We looked out at the fields and listened to the crickets. I squeezed Cesca tight and we watched the moon rising.
The next day we did it all again until we ended up back at the start point. I don’t suppose that the boat had gone particularly far, but it had seemed to be a long journey and since I didn’t notice us changing direction I suspect it was a particular circular path though the rivers and inlets.
The cost of this trip had been very high, but it had definitely been worth it. Relaxed and happy we then travelled down to the south end of Kerala and the beach town of Varkala via another hell-bus.