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.
Unni, taxi driver extraordinaire.
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.
Our shoes, outside Kumari’s door.
Lunch at Kumari’s
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.)