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Published: September 4th 2009
When I'd booked the back to back overnight trains that would take me from Hampi straight down to Kerala (with a day to do Bangalore!) it'd seemed like a great idea - saving time, which I was fast running out of, and money on accomodation etc etc - but by the time we eventually reached Varkala down on the south west coast of India I'd had plenty of opportunity to rethink that decision! Fortunately though we didn't have anything more taxing to do over the next few days than collapse on the beach and recover.... ahh life is tough ;0)
Various people I'd met along the way had recommended coming south and now having been I've learnt to ask why a person liked somewhere so much before heading off there myself! Don't get me wrong, I had a relaxing few days in Varkala just hanging on the beach, walking along the coast and discovering idyllic deserted coves along the way - my problem was that it's packed full of Europeans and really not very India. Perhaps what summed it up for me was when, having browsed the menus of all the waterfront restaurants and found lots of Italian, Israeli and
other western food but not much in the way of Indian, I asked our friendly hotel owner where we could get a decent curry. His response, well he laughed...lots! It seemed we needed to jump in a rickshaw, head 3km back into town and well, we never quite made it. Instead we were lazy and stuck with the western menus and entertaining beer lottery of the waterfront restaurants - sometimes we had our beers proudly sat on the table in front of us, other times the bottle was hidden underneath the table or, my personal favourite, the beer came decanted into a teapot!! Yup, picture a whole restaurant full of rather drunk westerners, all with teapots in front of them. It seems to be related to how much the owners are paying off the local police... or not in the case of the teapot users!
I left Mick, the guy I'd been travelling with for the last few weeks, lazing on the beach in Varkala and headed up to Allepey where I aimed to do a backwater tour. I'd met a couple earlier in my trip who'd recommended a place called Kollam where they'd spent a lovely afternoon being
slowly paddled along peaceful, narrow, shady canals in a wooden canoe. It sounded perfect and initially I'd planned to do the same. But then I got persuaded that Allepey was a nicer town and maybe it is, I'll never know, but for a relaxing canoe based backwater trip, well, I should have gone to Kollam! Allepey is, however, the place to go if you want to posh it up on an expensive house boat - some even have satellite dishes and air-con units attached! But there's lots of them and at times it felt like rush hour on the M25 canal equivalent - at one point I counted at least 15 around us! And of course big house boats require big wide canals, some perhaps 20m wide and more akin to the River Thames than a pituresque country canal. The town of Allepey itself is quite an interesting place to walk around - I struggled to find a restaurant for dinner but in the process discovered a row of shops all selling umbrellas in every conceivable colour and size, whole streets lined with nothing but gold jewellery shops and then within a 5 minute walk of each other a mosque,
a church and a Hindu temple! Alas though I went to bed hungry!
I ended my time in India in Fort Kochi which although it has a very touristy centre, packed with cafes, travel agents and overpriced gift shops, a 30min walk leads you to the sorts of streets I'd enjoyed so much at the start of my trip, full of vivid colours, the smell of spices and street food being cooked, the hustle of everyone trying to get somewhere and shops selling all kinds of random produce. There's no fort at Fort Kochi, at least not any more. Once a simple fishing village the area was granted to the Portuguese in 1503 by the Rajah of Kochi, who gave them permission to build a fort near the waterfront. Fort Emmanuel was built but later destroyed by the Dutch - all that remains now is a cannon and a small section of wall. I spent much of my time hanging out along the waterfront, sometimes visiting a couple of times during a day, watching the fishermen hauling in their catches at dusk whilst others waited nearby with scales to weigh buckets of squid that were then so unceremoniously dumped
on an ever growing pile. Behind the action crates of ice lay waiting, ready to get the fresh fish straight off to market or perhaps the kitchens of a nearby restaurant. Early in the morning the vibe was completely different. The noise and hustle of the evenings excitement was replaced with a tranquil feel, the crowd of spectators having disappeared and the fisherman instead sat quietly smoking, chatting or mending their nets. A little further along others manned the huge Chinese fishing nets that looked like a lot of hard work for not much gain and the guys working them seemed greatly entertaining at the thought of a white woman having a go!
I had some great encounters with locals in Fort Kochi and some not so good ones. Unfortunately as a western woman no matter how much you cover up and try to respect the local culture some Indian men still see you as fair game for a grope. And it doesn't seem to matter whether you're on your own, with a guy or in a group of girls - they'll still have a try. It happened twice more during my last few days in India by which
point I was having a serious sense of humour failure about it all - the guys are quite sly, more rubbing themselves against you than going for an obvious grope, but the result is the same and leaves you feeling really just ugh. My response by that point was to turn round and shout abuse at the bloke concerned on the basis that they might not understood the words but they'd certainly get the sentiment! What else can you do?! As soon as they reaslise they've been caught they usually run off anyway. There were some galant exceptions though - my screaming banshee response to one such groper saw an old Indian guy who'd been snoozing under a tree come rushing over to check I was OK, with his mobile phone in hand already to call the police! Perhaps I overcooked that one slightly. And then there was the family that owned the home-stay, a lovely young couple who wouldn't let me up to my room in the evening before I'd sat and had a cup of chai or chatted with them about my day, the news, whatever. The person I spent most time with though was the guys sister
- in her late 30s and never married she was fascinated by the kind of life that I and other women in the west lead. As I packed my bag on my last day she started asking me all about the Internet. Despite having at least five Internet cafes within a 10min walk of her home she'd never seen or used the Internet - it just wasn't part of her world. Yet she was fascinated by what it could do and whether it was as bad/evil as people said. So with the clocking ticking until my taxi arrived I took her off to the nearest internet cafe for a quick demo, after she'd changed into her best clothes of course because something so normal to me was for her a really big deal.
India is a mad, mad county. I only had two months here this time and for me that was enough for one trip.... but that's not to say I didn't love it. Indeed there's so much to see I'm already thinking of options for my next trip! I mostly travel on my own, sometimes meeting new people for a few days or even just a couple
of hours along the way, perhaps randomly sharing a meal in a restaurant (as much as I like travelling alone, I can have tooo much of my own company!) or a cup of chai on the train and occasionally managing to twist the arm of a friend to come and join me for a while. Before coming here a few people had said, India???? On your own??? You're mad! Arghhh the hassle you'll get!! And yes sometimes you get the unwanted attention I mentioned above but then you can get that anywhere. Mostly though I've found people here to be friendly and just interested, even if we don't speak the language - I'm now rather adept at sign language conversations on how many children I don't have, where I live, what I do etc. And when I have thrown my screaming banshee fit or a local guy has made an inappropriate comment in Hindi that I don't understand, I've had other locals step in and say something back or try to help far more times than I've ever experienced elsewhere. As for being hassled?? India is loud, frenetic, colourful, at times mental, indeed everything you'd expect a country with over
a billion people to be. And yes you do end some days feeling like you've said 'No thank you' a zillion times. But I can't say I really felt any more hassled than other places I've been to in Asia and as I say, I'll definately be back!
Next up Tango in Buenos Aries!
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