The final stanza of my 11 week trip to “Incredible India” (incredible for positive and negative reasons equally!) was spent in Kerala, located at the south-western tip of the Subcontinent. Locals proudly refer to their state as “God’s Own Country”, an apt moniker for a land of palm-fringed beaches, enchanting backwaters, shimmering paddy fields, lush rainforests, cool hill stations and emerald-green tea plantations. With a relatively small population of 35 million, Kerala has comparatively minimal crowds, hassling, traffic and pollution and enjoys a higher standard of living than elsewhere in the country. Its no wonder then that so many long-term travellers to India chose to end their journey in Kerala. I met up with British Hermione, another backpacking refugee fleeing the chaos of India’s North for the serenity of the South, and travelled with her for about a week, completing the typical circuit through the state.
To think I nearly wrote 14 entries about India without once mentioning my train journeys; probably the quintessential (shout-out to Andrew) travel experience of any trip to India! Blasphemy! Riding India’s huge railway network, a legacy of the British Raj, is easily the cheapest, safest (at least from a functional perspective) and most convenient way of traversing the long distances between Indian cities. And despite preconceived notions, travelling by train in India does not necessarily involve boarding overcrowded carriages with passengers hanging from the rooftops. Such infamous images are relevant only to Bombay’s suburban trains, which unfortunately I was unable to experience. That’s not to suggest travelling by train is by any means a relaxed and orderly affair; far from it! From booking tickets to navigating stations, every stage of a train journey features the classic frustrations of India.
Since travelling by trains is extremely popular, reserving seats or beds can be rather difficult. A seamless online booking system for Indian Railways does not exist (surprise surprise), so tourists must face the ordeal of queuing up for an hour, aggressively blocking queue-jumpers and dealing with intransigent ticket officers who are always terribly irritated you don’t know the 50 digit number of the train you want to board. Finding the right train on the day of travel is the next challenge. I was always sure to arrive at stations with ample time to spare, in order to comprehend their breathtakingly chaotic layouts and find as many officials as possible to confirm where I needed to be (you always want a second opinion on directional advice in India). Once the train arrives, you then need to quickly find the correct carriage (the trains are very, very long) to board, without being overwhelmed by the sudden pandemonium. Locating your seat or bed, usually in the absence of light and with a tinge of fear that it might be occupied, is the next hassle; though that should be the last obstacle. However, you definitely want a device that allows Google Maps to track your rough location offline (iPads seemed to be more effective than phones), because otherwise you’re clueless as to how far the train is from your station… there’s certainly no helpful announcements!
Trains in India are composed of a series of classes. The lower classes feature wooden benches and are virtually free. They’re totally fine for short journeys. The “sleeper” class consists of open planned 8-bed compartments (3 and 3 perpendicular to the train, with 2 parallel on the other side of the aisle), which are also ridiculously cheap. The first time I rode in sleeper class, a benevolent Indian warned me about the dangers of theft on that route (Gwalior – Varanasi) and emphasised I needed to keep my belongings very close. Unfortunately I had booked an upper side bed, which are only 5’5” and boxed in. After a very uncomfortable night squished into my limited space with 25kg of luggage, I learnt my lesson and avoided booking such cramped berths in future. The next class up, 3AC, has the exact same layout as the sleeper class, but provides pillows, sheets, blankets and unnecessary cooling and charges 5-10 times for the privileges. Since it was still cheap for my budget, I preferred to book this class as I felt my valuables were more secure in the absence of lower-income Indians! Such an awful mindset, in retrospect! The incessant staring though does get somewhat tiresome on those delayed, 16+ hour journeys. I generally slept very well on the trains, until the ritualistic alarm started ringing at around 6:00AM on every train; “Chaiii, chaiii… chaiii, chaiii… CHAIII, CHAIII!!!” While I never appreciated the nasal delivery of their advertising, one of the beautiful aspects of train travel in India is the profusion of vendors boarding the carriages to sell chai, samosas, pakoras, fruit, drinks and even full meals at the stations. Also regularly boarding the trains were beggars, often with disabilities, or women with babies, which could be quite confronting and awkward. Overall, I preferred trains to buses, because of the onboard space and to avoid travelling on India’s notorious roads.
Appropriately, I travelled to Kerala from Gokarna by train and arrived in the state’s largest metropolis, Kochi. Known as the “Queen of the Arabian Sea”, Kochi’s location in the Kerala Backwaters enabled it to serve as a major centre in the spice trade for centuries, with Roman, Greek, Arab, Persian and Chinese merchants known to frequent its port. In the fifteenth century, Jews fleeing from persecution during the Spanish Inquisition migrated to Kochi and formed a community that still exists (the “white Keralans”). The Portuguese established the Subcontinent's first colonial settlement at Kochi in 1500, on the northern tip of a peninsula parallel to the mainland. Fort Kochi was subsequently controlled by the Dutch and later the British. Lonely Planet goaded me into expecting a mystical melting-pot of South Indian, European and Chinese cultural influences. Yet Fort Kochi is only moderately interesting and the architectural legacy of European colonialists thoroughly underwhelming. I photographed some of the austere, dilapidated stone edifices, such as churches (Portuguese and Dutch influence) and townhouses, though more out of obligation than awe. I actually thought the most visually stimulating aspect of Fort Kochi was the astonishingly large trees shading the wide streets, though no other traveller agreed with this regularly expressed observation! I spent a day and a half wandering around Fort Kochi’s peaceful streets, soaking up the tropical, small-town ambience in absence of attractions. Aside from the food and reuniting with Hermione, the most enthralling event to occur in Kochi was the discovery of a queue-less ATM that allowed me to withdraw 1,900 rupees ($38) in 100 rupees notes several times over! The cash crisis in India was still very much persisting, so encountering such a facility was an unthinkable dream. Sure, I probably depleted the ATM’s reserve of 100 rupees notes (I was avoiding the dreaded 2,000 rupees notes), but by that stage of my trip in India I had adopted a dog-eat-dog attitude!
Large canopies of Kochi
Hermione and I attended a performance exhibiting the traditional Keralan dance-style, Kathakali. Unlike the puppetry and dancing we witnessed in Udaipur, the show was unquestionably one of the least impressive cultural experiences I have ever had the privilege of viewing. We were advised to arrive 30 minutes before the commencement of the play, to watch makeup being applied to the faces of the performers – apparently a unique and fascinating insight into the preparation of their bombastic appearances. I soon deduced though that “before and after” photographs would have sufficed. The play itself could hardly be described as any more riveting. Kathakali is a rather idiosyncratic dancing style, characterised by the performers’ dependence on excessive facial expressions to convey a storyline. The performers do little else, other than prancing around the stage incoherently and making animalistic grunts (instead of words). Hermione, an actor by trade, was visually aghast at the ineptitude of the production, which initiated my uncontrollable hysterics and requisite early departure.
Hermione and I next travelled up to the hill station of Munnar, leaving the humidity of the coast for the coolness of the Western Ghats (an extensive mountain range in South India). We were greeted by overcast and rainy conditions, remarkably the first time I had encountered such weather after 10 weeks in India (if we ignore the unexpected snowstorm I endured while recklessly trekking alone in the Himalayas!). I was rather apathetic about the virtues of travelling to Munnar as I had already experienced tea plantation landscapes in Malaysia and Sri Lanka, which were spectacular yet essentially identical. Indeed, the tea plantations surrounding the town were comparatively dull, especially in the inclement weather. As with any hill station in South Asia, Munnar is overrun with kitsch tourist shops, nurseries, “gourmet” food factories, gimmicky attractions and utter rip-offs. We hired a tuk-tuk to complete the conventional loop of such attractions and were thoroughly underwhelmed. Indeed, Hermione was actually rather unwell part-way through the trip, requiring us to abandon our efforts of squinting through the fog from Top Station to view the state of Tamil Nadu and descend back to Munnar. Fortunately, the weather cleared the following morning, allowing us to view the plantations in brilliant sunlight. In the absence of dedicated trails (no doubt a local effort to prevent independent and therefore cost-free activity for visitors), I decided to forge my own pathway through the tea bushes and eventually untamed bramble to a peak for panoramic views of the area.
View from the peak
We next travelled to Alleppey, located on the coast and surrounded by waterways, to visit the Keralan Backwaters. On the bus to Alleppey, I sat next to a local who thought our 5 minute conversation was sufficient justification for us to become Facebook friends. I begrudgingly accepted his request, though I deleted him promptly after the daily and needless enquiries about the progress of my trip. This certainly wasn’t the only occasion I encountered harmless and understandable hyper-excitement from Indians. On the first night, we stayed in a wooden bungalow outside of town adjacent to a major canal. Unimpressed by the legions of cockroaches in the room and the host’s persistent encouragement for us to drink spirits immediately after arriving from an exhaustive journey, we resolved to depart the next day. It was somewhat of a shame, because my early morning walk revealed a spectacular local environment. I ambled along ochre-coloured dirt tracks between rice fields, dense vegetation and thatched houses on one side and wide canals of placid and lily-covered waters on the other. I watched locals ply their long, narrow canoes used for fishing and transporting goods as large, wooden houseboats cruised by. I was confronted on my walk by a territorial male turkey. After a brief stand-off, I had to concede defeat as it launched a full-on attack at my legs – the turkey was definitely not bluffing. We relocated to Artpackers.life, situated much closer to the centre of Alleppey and near the beach. The hostel was opened only a month prior to our arrival by a pair of young, entrepreneurial South Indians who had travelled extensively and therefore possessed an advantage over other locals in the industry – awareness for what the discerning backpacker is after. They had converted an historic but derelict building formerly occupied by a local radio station and created a hostel I literally could not fault. They had even painted the imposing stone walls white to encourage guests to paint and imprint their own artwork on the building. The surrounding area was very peaceful, with wide streets, verdant trees, tropical vegetation and buildings pleasantly decayed from the humid climate; an atypical Indian neighbourhood. The beach wasn’t particularly beautiful, but it did provide opportune relief from the incessant heat. However, while thousands of Indians in their colourful saris congregated on the beach to watch the sunset, I was the only person in the water. Presumably, most Indians there were tourists and may never have swam, and therefore were wise not to challenge the very strong current without the requisite skills.
Canal near our first guesthouse
We joined a group tour of the Kerala Backwaters and were transported by motor boat from central Alleppey to a rural house adjacent the waterfront to begin our journey. While many tourists choose to stay on a houseboat to explore the backwaters, we opted for a tour that employed the more traditional form of vessel: long, wooden canoes moved by levering bamboo poles into the surface of the canals. The canoes are advantageous because of their petiteness and dynamism, which allows them to traverse the maze of narrow canals (roughly 5-10 metres in width) between the major canals where the houseboats cannot access. The scenery within the maze is intoxicatingly green, with palm trees and banana trees densely clumped between paddy fields and the lily-pad covered waters of the canals. The interminable greenery was broken only by thatch houses perched beside the canals and vibrantly coloured clothing drying on crescent shaped bridges and rafters, creating patchworks of rainbows amid the foliage. The men wore traditional Keralan garments with bandana-like headpieces and white cloth skirts, while women fashioned vibrant saris. We were isolated in the tranquility from other tour groups, due to the enormity and complexity of the canal network. Our group concluded the day at the beach in Alleppey to watch a wonderful Indian Ocean sunset.
My final destination in Kerala and indeed all of India was Varkala, a beautiful beachside town evoking, albeit slightly, a Byron Bay-esque vibe. Varkala is famed for its red cliffs that separate golden-sand beaches from rows of guesthouses and restaurants. Like Gokarna, I was pleasantly surprised by how clean the beaches and inconspicuous the touristic developments are, as the buildings blend in nicely with the jungly environment. The cliff-top walks offer spectacular views over the Indian Ocean and the tepid swells rolling into the coast. In the mornings, I ambled on the beach and was recruited by local fishermen to help pull in the ropes for their massive fishing nets. Despite the oppressive heat and beautiful blue waters, strangely few people were tempted to swim in the beaches. That was because the water was plagued with jellyfish, some of which (I am seriously not kidding) were nearly a metre in diameter!!! However, only frigid conditions will prevent Liam from charging into a surf beach, especially after months bereft of opportunities to swim. I first swam at around midday for about 30 minutes without suffering too many stings. When I returned to the water at sunset though, I was continuously stung and received some properly painful zaps that instigated my hasty evacuation! I fashioned a rather impressive mark on my neck after the ordeal that lasted for nearly a month!
Locals pulling their catch in
Gorging on South Indian food was undoubtedly our favourite pastime in Kerala. As always, the best dishes were eaten at local establishments with cheap, large portioned and spicy meals rather than tourist restaurants. Hermione in particular was utterly obsessed by dosas and we ordered at least one just about every time they were available. Dosas are enormous, wafer-thin pancakes, spongy-like on one side and crispy on the rather. Usually eaten in the morning, dosas are stuffed with a filling (masala dosa is the most common order – potatoes or vegetables mashed with ample spices) and served with coconut chutney (occasionally ruined with the addition of coriander), sambar (lentil broth) and a spicy, tomato and onion-based chutney. Dosas are absolutely delicious, completely addictive and sorely absent from Melbourne’s culinary scene! Other popular snacks in South India, all served with the same condiments, include vadas (fried, doughnut-shaped, spiced cake), uttayapam (like a hybrid crumpet and pizza base, with onion and tomato imbedded into the dough) and idlis (bland, sponge-like rice cakes). The speciality bread of Kerala is pakoda, which is basically the moorish, buttery roti available in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. It contrasts substantially with the dry, cardboard-like roti preferred in North India. We enjoyed several superb all-you-can-eat thalis in Kerala, with the usual South Indian spread of rice, sambar, light vegetable curries, red onions soaked in yoghurt and green chillies, coconut chutney, pappadums, pickled lemons and cardamom-infused rice pudding. Differentiating Keralan thalis were the jugs of thin-curries provided to slop over your rice; one of which, a tangy, yellow, yoghurt-based broth, was truly divine! Similarly to Andhra cuisine, meat “side dishes” could also be ordered, which usually consisted of beef, mutton or chicken prepared in spicy, dry curries. I sampled the ubiquitous and intriguingly named chicken/mutton/gobi-65, which featured bite-size pieces of battered meat or cauliflower fried in chillies and curry leaves. Despite repeatedly ordering seafood, the only particularly memorable fish dish I ate in Kerala was the first. The sweet, white-fleshed fish was served in a complex red sauce, where the spice was magnificently complemented by sour green mango. On that, it was thrilling to finally be able to eat tropical fruits again with guava, passionfruit and pomelo abundantly available.
Thus finally concludes my series of entries about India 2016, more than 12 months after I departed Thiruvananthapuram (try saying that 5 times successively!) International Airport (mind you, I could write another paragraph ranting about my processing experience their, but I’ll just say it was typical India right to the end!). What an absolute rollercoaster 11 week trip to the Subcontinent it was! On so many occasions, I felt desperate to leave and never return, worn out from the countless unbearably frustrating aspects of India. Yet I persevered and consequently enjoyed some of the best experiences of my travelling life. With sufficient time for reflection, I can now say categorically that India is by far the most memorable country I have travelled to, somewhere I think everybody should endeavour to visit at least once. I have no doubt I will return to India, eager to explore regions I didn’t even touch (such as Bombay, Tamil Nadu, Calcutta, Sikkim and the Andaman Islands).
That’s all for now,