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Published: January 4th 2010
For more of my photos, or to buy my book, please visit www.nickkembel.com
India has attracted pilgrims and spiritual travelers all the way back to those Aryan-vedic settlers, the noble ones with sacred tongues; mystical seers who thousands of years ago implanted divine śruti
(revealed knowledge) into the fertile soil of the Indus Valley. At Mohenjo Daro, Harappa, and Lothal ancient Brahmins drank hallucinogenic soma
and performed ritual sacrifices while the lower classes developed devotional relationships with the ancestors of the modern world’s most complex system of divinities.
While the great Sanskrit articulations of this civilization were merely a stepping stone between past oral traditions and future doctrinal philosophies, they established a system of social stratification that persists to this day, as well as a spiritual landscape within which philosophical debate was encouraged and even formalized, leading to a great diversification of beliefs based on every possible intricacy and detail pertaining to right-living fathomable by the human mind.
Schools became so varied that many branched into new ‘isms’, from Brahmanism and Hinduism to Jainism, Buddhism, and later Sikhism, each with a new interpretation and differing emphasis. This flowering of beliefs not only survived but was
also enhanced by the incursion of Islam in the Common Era, colonialism and Christianity, travel, globalization and the modern world.
The end result is a spiritual culture that is so immense, so intense, so complex in every possible aspect that the nation-name itself, INDIA, holds a certain mystical power, a powerful magnetism that inspires awe in all worldly individuals and those inclined towards the metaphysical. It is the Ultimate, the absolute destination. In travelers’ circles the world over people state with pride that they have ‘done’ India, meaning that, at the very least, they went there, they loved it they hated it but more importantly they did it and as a result of their experience they are forever and irreversibly changed.
Every single aspect of Indian culture is fervent and is a microcosm of the country as a whole. Take food for example. Indian cuisine is spicy aromatic heavy hot loud sweet salty messy a hundred flavors at once. It is delicious to the senses but sometimes a bit too much and it can even make one ill. And often there is no cutlery but your hands involved, just as there is no mediator between visitor
and nation. Common hassles aside, the truth remains that the streets and landscapes of India are bustling explosions of color and life, forcing the mind of the observer into a form of enlightenment through sensory overload.
In the 1970’s the hippies initiated the great backpacker’s revolution, paving trails from Europe to Asia in an era of travel when mobile phones, hand-sanitizer, guidebooks and Internet cafes were unknown traveler’s amenities. While modern mass tourism has changed the face of India, India has also given something to the west in return. As the flower-generation developed on the home front, it incorporated various elements of Indian culture into its repertoire, from psychedelic patterns on loose fitting clothing, Hindu adornments, dreadlocks and long hair to yoga, spirituality and sitar-mantra music. The Beatles studied at Rishikesh ashrams, and the massed followed.
In the south of India on the west coast, Goa was one of the earliest hippy enclaves. In my present journey too, I found that Goa provided a perfectly timed and much needed break at the near-end of my overland journey from Greece to East Asia. The entire coast of Goa state is lined with picturesque beaches, each with a
distinct flavor. Even setting out from Mumbai the traveler begins to notice a marked different between the cultures of India of the north versus the south. The food, climate and people are different. Things are simply more relaxed down here, and I would hypothesize that this difference can at least in part be traced back to a cultural difference between those early Aryan settlers and the native populations that they encountered in the south of the subcontinent.
Back in the 1970’s the overlanders set up a market at Anjuna in Goa to sell things from their packs that they no longer needed, as well as arts and crafts that they made in order to generate a little extra travel money. The weekly market exists to this day, though now it is an enormous spectacle, with entire zones of stalls grouped according to the region of India that the products and sellers originate. The foreigner’s section is now tiny and prices high in comparison, but the creativity of the merchandise and authenticity of the idea of it all seems to have survived at least in part, despite the rampant commercialism that has taken over the scene.
Goa is a strange and difficult-to-define affair. In the 1980’s it developed into a major party scene, defined by drugs and the beach rave phenomenon, even spawning it’s own brand of music, Goa Trance. With popularity came crowds, and with crowds came development, mass tourism, resort takeover, rising prices, and police surveillance. In more recent times the local police have cracked down hard on the party scene and made an active attempt to transform the coast into a family friendly-environment. Most places shut down early, and only a limited number of bars pay off the cops to stay open through the night. Tales of policemen busting tourists smoking joints on the beach and taking all their money or even emptying their ATM accounts are enough to keep most travelers on the ultra-discreet side.
The end picture of Goa is a scattered and confused collage of cultural and historical influences. Commercialism meets new-age explosion; overpriced scarf shops, “Making Rasta, Dreadlocks” signs on every second window, yoga yoga yoga, ayurvedic oil massage, happy hour mojitos at any hour, inappropriate-to-the-setting trance music over crowds of backpackers and middle-aged holiday makers enjoying fresh barbeque seafood at candle-lit tables on the beach, perma-fried
ageing hippies counting their 30th anniversary of arrival, and traffic jams of tourists on 4$ a day hired scooters.
But something of that original hippy vibe is still there to be found or made, even for a crowd of post-hippy, post-Generation X, post-backpacker, post everything people of the now. In peak tourist season I was still quickly able to find myself a simple 5$ bamboo hut on a hill looking over the entire length of the beach, and I set up camp for my 2 week stay during which I became close friends with a sweet crew of like-minded individuals
From Goa I continued my journey south to the state of Kerala, a land so flooded with water that farmers use motorized pumps to control the flow of water out of, and not into the rice paddies. The land is so low in elevation that they also block the sea from flowing in, except for once a year when they allow salt water through the immense network of canal and rivers in order to flush out the pollution and kill of unwanted vegetation.
This incredible network of land-hydration also happens to be the focal
point of tourism in the far south. Houseboating is the ‘thing to do’ for visitors, with an army of floating hotels to greet all arrivals at Alleppey and Kollam, the two major access points to the backwaters. Prices are high, and air conditioning, wide screen TVs and refrigerated beers are to be expected. Personally, I found prices a little too high, and opted for the 10 cent local ferry to a small backwater village where I compensated by splurging on a mid-range hotel (still a fraction of the coast of a houseboat) offering spectacular home-cooked Keralan cuisine, heavy on the coconut and spices, tours of the picturesque local village and rice fields, and a stunning canoe trip including a stopover at a local toddy (coconut beer) pub.
Life on the canals is approximately one million miles away from life in the congested major cities of India. Farmers herd colonies of ducks into the water, women pound clothing on rocks beside streams, vibrant blue Kingfisher birds nest in coconut palms, men harpoon fish from the water banks, bright pink churches stand across the river from bright multi-colored Hindu temples, prayer call from the local mosque resonates over the calm
Christmas in South India!
No snow, no rum & egg nog, but at least the weather is fine!
waters at sunset, and children float to their schools on local ferries. Everything revolves around the water. And everything is relaxed.
Kerala is also a communist leaning region, with sickle-and-hammer and Che Guevara flags flying in the swamps. It also has the highest literacy rates and some of the wealthiest population in India, impressive in my opinion given the liquid nature of their landscape.
It happened to be Christmas season during my visit, with somewhat strange visible signs of it. Most of the locals in the backwaters hung large lit up stars from their roofs. In the bigger towns I was hassled by Santa Clauses dancing to Indian drums on the street, hoping for a little tourist dollar. In front of one shop I spotted a large stuffed Père Noel bearing a sign saying ‘DON’T TOUCH ME’. Nicer hotels generally sported a few strings of lights and a Christmas tree, which was about the only thing that felt ‘Christmassy’ in this tropical, humid environment. I took at least a little pleasure in noting one day that it was precisely 80 degrees Celsius warmer in Kerala than in my hometown of Edmonton, Canada.
up my Keralan venture with a visit to a local fishing beach early one morning. Groups of colorful men stood in rows hauling enormous fishing nets from the sea, and then squatted around to sift through the sand and random trash for handfuls of fish which they would run up to sell at the street side market. I was unable to intermingle unnoticed, and many of them would beckon me over to observe their activities or to take their photographs. All-in all it was certainly a thought-provoking destination to spend my holiday season, and I hope that my commentary gives some insight into the feel of this wonderful little corner of the world. For more of my photos, or to buy my book, please visit www.nickkembel.com
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