There is no place I know that is better at showing the good and bad extremes of life at the same time as its beauty as India. A reality check, a recalibration of your own life or any number of other declarations about the influence of India on the traveller is often applied to the point of becoming a cliché. But the one thing I know is that each time I have visited I have come away a quite different person from the grey and travel weary man who arrived weighed down with first world problems or perceived burdens that quickly fade in the bright Indian sunlight.
In a strange way I had forgotten the lessons of previous trips and had half decided that this trip – which would conclude my quest to see most of the country apart from the off limits extreme north west – would probably be my last for a long while. And yet I am back here in the cool southern Turkish winter I left in November wondering if next year would be too early to return. I won’t of course. By this time next year the memory and the magic that draws me back will have all but faded; but return one day I will.
I started my trip in Goa on the western coast. A former Portuguese colony that only became free after India took it by force in 1961. So there are lingering traces of its colonial past all around. There are many people who go there every year to overwinter including some who visit my part of Turkey during summer. India light is a label some attach to Goa or entry level India and both proved to be adequate descriptions. Indeed on the flight there from Manchester I could have been mistaken, looking around the cabin at beer bellies under tight football shirts and tattooed woman secretly pouring duty free from their handbags when the cabin staff weren’t looking that I was actually on a flight to Benidorm or the Canary Islands or some other well trampled winter sun destination for Brits. As you might expect alongside the curry houses there is no shortage of full English breakfasts or discounted beer and cocktails to pull in the crowds. Whilst in Goa I initially stayed in Candolim as a base and soon fitted in a long trip to the centre of India to see the ancient city of Hampi. I did try Anjuna in the north and had a nice 3 night diversion to the south at the pretty but noisy Palolem beach area. Noise is a feature of India you need to get used to; not just the national habit of using the car or motorbike horn several times every minute but also in the way conversations are carried out at a volume a few notches higher than us westerners are used to.
Goa can be a little exhausting especially trying to get anywhere by road. Which meant I felt lucky to find a nice quiet hotel south of Candolim in the peaceful Sinquerium area, where I spent Christmas.
Next stop was Kerala so I flew to the city of Cochin. It had crossed my mind to go by train but my earlier experiences of trains in India made me avoid the 20+ hour journey. Although my flight was delayed by 2 hours it was not as bad as the train which eventually took 25 hours according to one of my fellow travellers who left Goa on the same day.
Since reading “The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy I had wanted to visit Kerala. Cochin is mentioned many times in the book so I was eager to see it too. I had been under the impression that Cochin was the capital of Kerala but in fact the capital Thiruvananthapuram (try saying that with a mouth full of nuts!) lies in the far south. I stayed in Fort Kochi in the old part of the city and had planned to stay for 3 nights but I soon discovered that beyond the confines of the Fort area Cochin is just another sprawling, noisy and heavily polluted Indian city. In addition, despite the millions of rupees Fort Kochi must make every week from tourist/accommodation taxes I found it quite neglected and derelict in places. However, the saddest thing was the hundreds of tons of rubbish covering almost every piece of sand on the western beach where the famous Chinese fishing nets are located. A week or so of intensive clean up and then perhaps a tiny proportion of the tourist taxes going to fund a couple of full time rubbish pickers like the many you see in Goa would surely open the beach area up for other things that in turn would attract more tourists.
For me one of the biggest shocks was that Kerala is in fact a dry state where alcohol is officially banned in all but expensive hotels. The reality of course is that you can get a drink in small restaurants and cafe’s as long as you are prepared to receive your beer in a teapot which you pour into a mug ostensibly to fool the police. But of course like in the prohibition era USA of the 1930’s the police know exactly where the booze is being sold. So if you want a beer you will end up paying 3 or 4 times what you would pay in other states like Goa. The bar staff will tell you the exorbitant prices are necessary to pay off the police but of course most of these high profits will stay firmly in the pockets of the bar and hotel owners.
Soon I was on a train south to the town of Varkala, which lies about an hour north of the capital Thiruvananthapuram. The tourist area of Varkala is called Varkala beach although in reality it is mostly built along some attractive cliffs with a very nice beach below. My plan was to stay for about 5 days over New Year and move on but I felt so at home in Varkala that I eventually stayed almost 2 weeks. My only adventure away was a trip down to the town of Kanyakumari regarded as the very southern tip of mainland India where the Arabian sea meets the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean.
I also arranged an early morning outing into the famous Kerala backwaters where a thankfully none chatty boatman in just a mundu punted me around the still waters like a Venetian gondolier with only the sound of animals and insects breaking the silence. I would strongly recommend this over what has become the must do overnight houseboat trip on a converted rice barge. Not just on cost but because you will get into shallower areas and also encounter a lot less biting insects through the day. In the afternoon I also had some fun playing with paint during a few hours with a Kathakali oriented art teacher.
And then… almost as suddenly as I arrived – it was time to fly home again.
India can sometimes enchant and frustrate at the same time; but it is never boring. As a European the rubbish and pollution is a disappointment and it always comes as a shock the first time you see an adult or child drop their empty bottle, drink can, sweet wrapper or cigarette carton where they stand or out a car or train window. The same for the habit of burning household rubbish including toxic plastic any time of day or night. Until the accumulation of smog from a thousand little fires and the stubble burning off the fields gets added to car exhaust until your eyes and throat burn. It is little wonder that New Delhi is now described as the most polluted city in the world.
However, I discovered there were also positive changes since my last visit. Like the growing voice of the lowest caste Dalits, which means oppressed in Sanskrit. Once referred to as the untouchables they represent 20% of the population and now seem more prepared than ever to march for their rights and justice. I often ask this same question when I am in India: How can a country proudly call itself the world’s biggest democracy when its politicians and leaders – mainly from the privileged higher castes – help perpetuate a system that has oppressed and subjugated hundreds of millions of its own citizens for centuries? Far worse than anything seen in apartheid South Africa or segregation era America. Some quite rightly point to the British Raj for exacerbated the caste system but India has enjoyed its independence for 70 years so it is high time for durable change. In her book “The God of Small Things” Arundhati Roy shone a vivid light on the prejudices and atrocities meted out to untouchables 50 years ago so it really is a crying shame these things continue today.
Finally, as with any adventure abroad it is not only the sights and smells and tastes of a place that make it memorable but also the people you meet along the way. Making friends with total strangers is quite liberating – especially as you know nothing of each other’s past and see only what you choose to reveal to each other in the present. This creates a rare intimacy for the traveller that is energizing but also tinged with sadness because all too soon “pleased to meet you” inevitably becomes “goodbye.” So in roughly date of meeting order hello again to: Jan and Sabrina, The Lobo family, Ravi, Eva and Gar, James, Kristen, Samundra and his Nepalese cousins, Manish and Mary and of course last but by no means least Shain who half rescued me on New Year’s Eve. Thanks once again for being part of my Indian Adventure.