Saturday, October 15, 2011

Travels Down South

Taken from Fort Cochin in Kochi

I’m typing this as I sit on the balcony outside my hotel room overlooking the Bay of Bengal in Kanyakumari. I splurged in order to have a view of the sea (and by splurged, I mean I’m paying about $18 US for the night instead of my usual $4-8). I won’t be able to post this for a while because internet is hard to find. Since I left Bangalore my days have been an odd blur of train trips and boat rides and lack of sleep and cold showers. Regardless of how many times I wash them, my feet are covered with so much grime from wandering around these cities that there is the permanent impression of Chaco sandals on my feet.

I left Bangalore on Tuesday and took my first overnight train to Kochi (in the central part of Kerala). Before I go further, my experiences on Indian trains so far deserve mention.

Trains are huge here. Lonely Planet tells me that around 20 million people travel by train in India every day and Indian Railways is the largest utility employer on earth with1.5 million employees. Because of this, the railway stations can be hectic, bustling places that are somewhat challenging to navigate. But I’m learning the method to the madness. Every time I arrive at a train station, it feels a bit like trying to make my way through an obstacle course, with certain logical steps to follow before I can continue. So far my train adventures tend to go like this:

Arrive at station. Try to look confident. Dodge all the men who try to tell me the inside office is closed and they will to sell me a (fake) ticket. Dodge all the men who try to carry my bags for me (for a fee, of course). Try to find any kind of information. Pose for a few pictures with Indian tourists who ask if they can have a photo with me. Locate the information desk to find out what platform my train will be arriving on. Forget that people here don’t really wait in lines. Push and shove my way to the front to ask the platform number. Lug my bags up the stairs that form an overpass to connect the different platforms to each other. Curse myself for my stubbornness in handling my bags myself. Lug the bags back down the stairs, now at the appropriate platform. Realize I am sweating profusely. Wait for the train. Try to locate my class and coach number as the train slows down. Jog (with my bags) until I ‘ve lined up at the appropriate coach, get on. Navigate with the other people in our car how we’ll possibly fit our bags into this small space. Argue over who has what berth assigned. Sit. Try to make friends with the little kid across from me by giving him a sticker. Read a book. Put in headphones. Listen to a podcast. Help undo the metal straps to convert the daytime seating arrangement into a three-berth set up. Climb up the metal ladder in order to reach my upper berth. Win respect from older Indian men for doing this on my own. Hit my head on the ceiling. Try to spread out a sheet while sitting on it. Lie down and try to sleep. Start worrying about missing my stop. Start worrying about where my passport is. Start worrying because it’s raining outside and the train might crash. Realize I have to pee. Decide it’s not worth trying to clamber down the metal ladder in the dark to go. Watch as guards patrol the coach. Feel simultaneously protected and freaked out at the size of their guns. Start worrying about guns. Watch bugs crawling on the wall. Start worrying that if I fall asleep they will crawl on my face. Fall asleep for an hour or two. Get woken up by a fierce cry of “Coffeechaicoffeechaicoffeechai.” Hit my head. Wait for the person beneath me to wake up also so that I can climb down. Convert the three berths back to the daytime arrangement. Read a book. Put in headphones. Listen to a podcast. Realize the stops don’t have clear signs and worry I’ve missed my stop. Ask anyone who speaks English around me what stop we’re on. Drink chai. Pretend I’m on the Hogwarts Express. Arrive. Feel triumphant. Walk off the train and lug my bags up the stairs to get off of the platform. Lug them back down. Realize I am sweating profusely. Look for a friendly-looking auto rickshaw driver who I can bargain with to take me to a hostel.
(Note: the photo above is of a two-berth set up, although so far I’ve only been in compartments that have other words, imagine even more cramped).

Kerala is exceedingly hot right now. I realized I’ve been spoiled by the more moderate climates of Mysore and Bangalore over the last few weeks. I arrived in Ernakulum, which is the more hectic part of Kochi and checked into a room there. Trying to escape the madness and search out other parts of Kochi, I quickly took a ferry over to Mattancherry and Fort Cochin.

It was here that I began to appreciate what Kerala is all about. You walk the streets in these areas and you can just envision the European and Indian traders of thousands of years ago walking these same streets, rich with spices and tea and literally, steeped in history. (Forgive the pun, I’ve been traveling alone for a while). Lonely Planet says it’s hard to find such a mix of cultures anywhere else in India; in Kochi you have Chinese fishing nets, a 400 year-old synagogue, a Dutch cemetery, Portuguese row houses and the old palace of a British king. There is still a tiny Jewish community in the “Jew Town” area of Fort Cochin although rumor has it there’s only one woman left of childbearing age (no pressure or anything…)

I ended up spending the day wandering around with an older South African couple because I approached them on the ferry over and we discovered that we all wanted to see the same sights. We met an auto rickshaw driver who was exceedingly honest with us and asked if he could bring us to a shop that was on the way to where we were going. If he brought us to the shop, he got commission (in this case, a coupon for petrol), and in exchange, he said he’d drop us at the synagogue for free after a few minutes in the store. It was a deal.

And then, on the way, we stopped here:

All of the rock-looking things are actually ginger covered with lime powder drying in the sun.

This unmarked, unpreserved area is still a working spice market. And, casually, the auto rickshaw driver mentioned that behind the walls you see above (up the stairs and through the doors) is the ocean and the very same spot where Vasco de Gama landed and conducted his trade. There is no plaque, no marker, but you look around this place and just feel it. It was an amazing place I never would have found on my own and it was then and there I fully realized just how amazingly old this place is. We were all a little speechless.

My second day in Kochi I spent on a tour of the backwaters around the islands. We spent half the day on a larger houseboat exploring the rivers and stopping by in a few villages, and, after a traditional Kerala lunch of mussels with huge chunks of ginger and garlic, we transferred into a few tiny canoe boats and went through some lagoons. It was my first time seeing the plants of so many things I’m used to eating—cacao, pepper, nutmeg, tamarind, cardamom, and the list goes on…
Boat #1
Boat #2
Chocolate! (almost)
It was a beautiful two days spent surrounded by many sights that were completely new. I would love to come back to Kerala sometime and explore more of it. I’m currently posting this from Kanyakumari, India’s southernmost tip (technically a part of the state of Tamil Nadu, not Kerala). I’m getting my energy together to brave the train ride to Madurai tonight. More on Kanyakumari to come…


  1. If you can ride a train in India by yourself without getting hassled (much), and more importantly, if you can elbow your way to the front of the "line," you can do anything in India. Way to go!

  2. Glad you can relate, Caroline! That's what I like to think too. :)