Announcement: This is A Quarter Life Crisis. Mind the Gap.

Growing up happens all of a sudden. I mean, gradually we’re all getting older and taking on new challenges like paying taxes and voluntarily taking ourselves to the dentist. Those things are easy. But one day something happens, and suddenly you realise this isn’t a game anymore. Shit gets real.

For me, that something was retrenchment.

I have been retrenched.

v. re·trenched, re·trench·ing, re·trench·es. 

1. To cut down; reduce. 2. To remove, delete, or omit. 

Surprisingly, I am not particularly upset about it. This final decision has come after a long (nearly) six months of uncertainty and instability and I made a personal decision several weeks ago that this is all one big, fat sign from the universe that I am too young to grow up.

I am twenty five. Unmarried. Unattached. Childless. Bondless. Educated. Free. I never took a gap year after school, I have never done anything crazy. I have a deep fear of sitting around a dinner table in my fifties and having no stories to tell, no mad tales of adventure and pure reckless irresponsibility. Cape Town is my soul city, my heart beats wilder when I climb Lions Head or take a stroll along the prom. This will be my home always and I don’t want to resent that one day. I never want to feel trapped by this city and this country, which I love so passionately.

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Cape Town, by Anna Simmons.

So, I’m off! I’m off to explore the world, to learn about other cultures and other people. I want to open my eyes and my mind and I want to grow myself as a human being. I am hoping for a lot from this trip. I am hoping to get a whole new perspective on my life and on the world, and I’m hoping to come home a different (and better) person. Hopefully with some major life decisions made, such as what the hell I’m going to do with the rest of my earning years.

My tickets are booked, I’ve had the vaccinations and researched my visa requirements. I have a pair of good hiking boots and my dad’s old backpack. I’ve downloaded ten books to my Kindle app and forced myself not to start reading any of them. I’ve given notice to my medical aid and to my gym. I’ve wrapped up my life.

My Great Big Adventure begins on 12 July 2014 in Singapore.  From there I travel by train and bus through Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Nepal and India.

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Oh, India. Where this all started and therefore how fitting that it should end there too. My flight home from Mumbai is booked for December, but it’s not set in stone. I may sidetrack to New Zealand. I may push my flight out and try to squeeze a bit more out of my budget. I don’t know yet. I have no idea what’s going to happen along the way or when I get back and that is both terrifying and utterly exhilarating.

Watch this space.

 

Soul and Surf and the cliffs of Varkala. India, Part Two.

I’ve developed this annoying habit of starting sentences with, “When I was in India.” I can’t help it.

I had zero interest in ever visiting India. You know those movies where the foreigner arrives in India and they’re driving around in a taxi and kids are banging on the windows? Yup, not my scene. So the split second decision to go to India came as a surprise to everyone, especially me. (Twenty-four-hour turnaround between deciding and booking. No jokes.)

I stayed in Varkala, Kerala for two weeks and people keep telling me I didn’t do ‘real’ India. I’m fine with that. ‘Real’ India terrifies the hell out of me, even now still. But at least now I have more of an idea of what to expect and I’ve already planned my next route. So if you’re heading to India for the first time, I highly recommend this little bubble as your first stop. Give you a few days to find your feet, get some tips from the great locals who work there and from other travelers who are passing through.

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Soul and Surf is a beautiful, colonial style house set on the south cliffs of Varkala. The hotel is owned by a lovely young British couple called Ed and Sofie, and run by a large staff of mostly British and Indian kids, who are there to surf and have a good time. My room was mid-range, a “Nice” room and was large and comfortable, with a private bathroom. I didn’t have an air-con and I didn’t need one.The hotel is only open during winter season (From November to May), as summer brings the monsoons. In December the weather was hot and sticky during the day and cool at night.

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My days were leisurely and lazy. We met at 6:15 am at the cafe in the garden for coffee and the tiniest, sweetest bananas imaginable. Then we clambered into the back of the old jeep , which was piled high with surfboards, and took off on the perilous journey to the beach at North Cliff.

I say perilous, because any journey involving Indian drivers can be labelled as perilous. There is a lot of hooting involved and very little observing of road rules.

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The walk from the car park to the beach was the second hardest part of my day. The first hardest part of my day, was the walk back. The boards are big (for beginners) and don’t fit neatly under your arm. It’s nothing like Blue Crush. So you hold your board above your head and when you’ve spent the previous evening in downward dog, your arms start to take strain. A very steep flight of crumbling stairs stands between you and the beach.

But I made it up and down every time. A few hours of surfing, with help from various (hot) surf instructors, before heading back to the hotel for a quick shower and breakfast. A plate of fresh fruit and a lassie of varying flavours, followed by a plate of either Indian curry or British eggs. Sundays is the best banana pancake you could imagine. I have dreams about those pancakes.

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The rest of the day is spent shopping along the cliffs, tanning on the beach and swimming in the sea. All of these are quite exhausting activities. The current in the sea is pretty strong so you get in a good workout and if you’re not careful, tanning on the beach can be interrupted by curious Indian teenagers who have heard that Westerners are easy.

My friend had at least one penis waved in her face.

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Lunch was eaten either at the cafe (they make the most phenomenal cakes, washed down by an icy glass of fresh coconut water – best) or at one of the many restaurants which line North Cliff. The menus are all pretty much the same and the food is excellent.

And so cheap. One dinner involved a seafood platter which included calamari, prawns, grilled fish and tandoori fish. Including drinks, my bill came to 500 Rupees. Which is about R70. We later discovered that the the restaurants in town were much cheaper and had a full, delicious meal for 35 Rupees.

With our Rand, India is a great option. Really.

We spent the afternoons exploring town, having Ayurvedic spa treatments, cooking courses, sari shopping and seeing what Varkala had to offer. The days were ended off with yoga on the roof, while the sun was setting. A quick shower and then off to the Cliffs for dinner and drinks. Drinks which were served in tea cups or with newspaper wrapped around them, because liquor licenses in Varkala are expensive and complicated. So most restaurants don’t bother.

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I highly recommend Soul and Surf. Tucked away from the chaos of town, it was a little sanctuary to escape to.The staff were great and it was a very sociable atmosphere, every night a group of guests met for dinner and I met some really amazing and interesting people.

My one and only regret, is not taking the time to travel further into Kerala. There is so much I want to see and do still. Although, having said that, I probably wouldn’t have felt so refreshed had I spent my two week holiday running around trying to see everything India has to offer. The country is too big and too complicated.

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It was a short trip, only two weeks, but it was a trip that has had a huge impact on me. My perspective on everything has changed, particularly on my future and what I want to do with it.

(For part one, click here).

This is India, So Leave Your Shoes Outside The Door. (Part One).

Boarding passes to India should come with a health warning. Caution: This trip will change your life.

I know, cheesiest line ever. And in my travel agent’s defence, she did warn me that I would come back a different person. At the time I brushed her off but she was not wrong. The two weeks I spend in Kerala, was the happiest and lightest I have felt in a long time. I felt free. Usually when I travel, around South Africa or to Europe, as much as I enjoy myself I always get stupidly excited to feel the wheels touch down in Cape Town and see the mountain rising gracefully above me. This was the first time, in my entire life, that coming home didn’t spark those feelings. I didn’t want to be here. I wasn’t ready to leave.
My city, the home I have loved so fiercely, feels suffocating now.
A simple two week holiday has landed me slap bang in the middle of a raging life crisis. But that, my friends, is a story for another day. Or perhaps, for a day when I’ve figured out what to do about it.
As for India, frankly I don’t even know where to start. Or where to end. I will do this in parts and just know, I am not doing it justice.

 “If there is one place on the face of earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it is India.”

 Romain Rolland, French scholar

It’s dirty. There is trash everywhere, because in Varkala (VAR-kala) there is no municipal trash collection. You’re expected to get rid of it yourself, usually by burning it. Which obviously, a lot of people can’t be bothered to do. I saw a dog eating another dog on the ride in from the airport. The ribs were already picked clean and the mutt was working on the legs. It was pretty disturbing. but even though it’s dirty and rundown, it’s beautiful. The homes are all built in amongst the palm groves and as hard it might try to overtake, the town plays second to the trees and the natural dirt which will not be tamed.

 

Speaking of dogs, they roam the streets freely and relatively peacefully. The stray dogs wander the streets, chill on the beach and drape themselves across pavements. They seem, for the most part, to be relatively well fed. I don’t want to say it’s because they eat each other, I prefer to think they pick up scraps from kind-hearted restaurant owners in the vicinity. It’s a nicer image. I never heard them barking, hardly ever saw a fight and they’re very friendly. They’d often lie at your feet under a cafe table or come sniff your ear when you’re downward-dogging on the beach as part of your pre-surf warm up. There are stray cats too but they’re much shier and won’t let you close enough for a stroke or a scratch. And, god, they are beautiful. The tiniest, daintiest cats I have ever seen and with the most enormous eyes.

There were elephants too, lumbering slowly up the road with their legs chained and fresh wounds on their back from where the whips had been laid across their rumps. That was hard. I had to bite my tongue down, especially during a religious festival where seven elephants were lead through the streets of Varkala. They were dressed in red and gold finery and religious men from the local temples rode on their backs. It wasn’t an appropriate time to start discussing the rights of chained elephants and I did decline an invitation to a local elephant park on the advice of Krishna, who warned me that they would all be chained.

 

 

The drivers. Oh, sweet lord, the drivers. The hour and bit drive from Thiruvanathampuram Airport to Varkala was the funniest and scariest drive of my life. Listen, our taxi drivers have nothing on these guys. Cars, buses, taxis, trucks and scooters drive two abreast in a single lane and overtake any which way and usually three across. At one point I had a school bus on one side, a family of four on a scooter (no helmets) on the other and a petrol tanker heading straight towards us. Hooters are used in lieu of indicators and not aggressively, it’s a friendly “I’m overtaking so watch yourself”. Drivers hoot before going around a corner, to warn people coming from the other side to stay in their lane. Not one single traffic rule is observed there and the traffic officers dotted around seem more intent on breaking the national chain-smoking record than enforcing any kind of structure. I felt totally safe though. It’s organised chaos.

 

I used only one taxi driver while I was there. A lovely, quiet man called Unni who wore a traditional lungi (a sarong, which the men wear tied around the waist and dropped to the floor. When they’re hot they flap the bottoms to fan their legs and when it’s too hot, the pick up the bottoms and drape them into a mini-skit. I don’t know how the hell they do it, I can’t even wrap a bath towel around me) and was particularly proficient at hooter use. He drove me to and from the airport and took me, on his own initiative, to a local religious festival in which we saw the elephant procession.

For all transport needs, I (we) relied on auto-rickshaws. Which are basically three-wheeled scooters with a roof. I was prepared to have to one day jump out so the driver could get up the steep hills on his tiny engine, but it never happened. They all have meter boxes but I never did find one that worked. Fees are bartered for, I refused to pay more than Rs. 100 (about R16). Rickshaws are my new favourite way to travel – fresh air, beautiful scenery and none of the confines of a car.

The people are wonderful. I felt safe there, looked out for. It’s perhaps a naive feeling, we were told about the murder of an Indian tourist in the area after he angered a local shopkeeper. And my friend MC had two incidents of, ahem, Inappropriate Sexual Conduct while tanning on a deserted beach (nothing critical, just uncomfortable) but for the most part the people are friendly and welcoming and very keen to engage in conversation. Explaining things to us, like what the festival was about, or just asking how we were and where we came from.

 

Me: “South Africa”

Schoolkids: “Aah, Graeme Smith!!!”

 

We had lunch in the home of a woman named Kumari, who wouldn’t let us take photos of her because she was embarrassed about her figure. Ha. From Clifton to the rural homes of Varkala, women are the same the world over. She cooked us fourteen dishes and served them to us on banana leaves, on her back stoep with her cows watching us lazily.

 

Anil, the rickshaw driver, invited us to his daughter’s wedding reception where we sat on the roof of the house with the other white guests. Best table he had, of course. The bride did not seem at all perturbed to have total strangers waltzing through her wedding party and gave us all limes for good luck.

The only thing Indians like more than being in photos, is taking photos of white people. Of us surfing, doing yoga, reading on the beach. I am in the holiday albums of many Indian families. 

We met the shopkeepers. Babu, who made beautiful leather shoes and bags and has seven brothers and three sisters. We sat on the floor of his shop drinking chai and joking about how he’ll make his fortune. Sita, the grumpy young mother who ran one of the stalls along North Cliff. Every day MC would ask her how she was doing and everyday she’d frown and say, “No good” or something to that gist. Eventually I bought a sarong and a keyring for her, on condition she give me one smile. Krishna, who runs the hotel cafe and who’s life story belongs in the pages of a book.

 

I fell in love with India and I also fell a little bit in love in India.

(Part two coming soon.)

 

 

 

Out Of Office 29.11 – 17.12

If you’re reading this, it means it is sometime after 12:00 on Friday afternoon and I am officially done with work for the next two and something weeks!

Tomorrow, Saturday, I will be getting on airplane. Destination: Varkala, India.

I haven’t yet decided how active I will be on social media while I am away. I may do a total cleanse and log myself out until I’m back in the country. Or I may be overwhelmed by the need to share everything, immediately. I’m not setting any rules.

So this may be all you’ll see until mid-December. If so, check back after the 17th. There will be photos.

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To Do List: The Indian Edition

  1. Book accommodation
  2. Book flights
  3. Apply for visa
  4. Panic
  5. Check weather

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I paid the balance of my accommodation and picked up my visa on Thursday. I had my green passport in my hand, staring at the pretty blue and pink visa and the godawful passport photo which show off chipmunk cheeks and old acne scars, and the following two thoughts crossed my mind:

1. SIX MONTH VISA, BABY. I could spend spend six months in India, doing yoga and learning how to surf. My boss would kill me. My mother would kill me. Claire would kill me.

2. Oh my god. I have a visa. This is happening. In three weeks, this is happening.

There is so much I still need to do and no time to do it in, because the next three weeks are insane. Business trips, The Bookmarks, our company year-end function. I have a hotel, a flight and a visa. And that’s pretty much it. I still need to do a shop for medicines, toiletries and appropriate summer-but-not-too-revealing clothing.

And also yoga clothes. And sports bras. This isn’t a stroll down the Champs-Elysees. This is yoga everyday in the Indian heat, the way it was meant to be done.

And a leg wax. Which requires a fair amount of mental preparation.

The fact that I have yet to enjoy a yoga session ever has not escaped my attention but I am choosing to not be concerned about it. When in Rome and so forth.

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I have traveled quite a lot in my life. But it has been in the safety of western society. Getting lost in Europe is really not even a thing. Someone speaks English. There is definitely an embassy or a hotel or policeman nearby. They’re way too anal to let you get on the wrong train and even if you do, you’re going to end up in another town with an embassy, a hotel and and a policeman.

In my naive and relatively short life, this might be the bravest thing I have done. To get on a plane, alone, to a place where I know no one and no one knows me. There is no uncle a short train ride away to help me out. India seems like a million miles away from everything I know and I am exhilarated, high on excitement and fear.

It’s a good feeling.

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All images via The Culturist. Read this article for insight into the Kerala region of India.