travel

Kerala: Gods' Own Country in Words

(You can find the photos to follow this travel story on a separate post here.)

It has been one week since I left India and a five month walkabout of the south. I haven't written much yet. It left such an impression, I needed time to let it settle into my skin and into my bones. India was the beginning of my travels, a place that held space for me for five months, and a place I had my heart set on for four years. It was so many things I never expected, and I didn't up doing several things I thought I might. It has brought me so many stories and friends and somewhere I will forever hold dear.  So now I'll begin at the beginning, which is usually a good place to start.

The first thing I remember of Kerala was the sound of crows in the trees at 3am. That first night we landed and were searching for sleep through the jet lag of three plane journeys and 26 hours travel from Edinburgh via London and Delhi, I woke at 3am and all I could hear were crows. Not the solitary caw that normally follows the rain in Scotland. Before I came to India, I always associated crows with a damp grey dusk; at home, they seem to be the only bird that emerges and calls after the rain and during the mist. The solitary caw of a crow always makes me feel a chill to my bone and the need to wrap my scarf tighter. But in Kerala, they are ever present and they are many. They're not the bird of grey skies and rainfall. They accompany the sun and call amongst the coconuts. The sound of crows followed me all through Kerala.

The second thing I remember is standing in a night market in Kochi (the anglicised name is Cochin) and looking up to the sky as the evening chants from the nearby temple began, to see bats as big as dogs slowly flapping overhead. The bats at home are small and flit fast with anxiety-ridden wings, only visible from the corner of your eye in your peripheral vision. The bats here were flying with purpose in one direction, one straight line on the strength of a slow, heavy beat of their massive wings. It was a natural instinct, at first, to compare birds and bats and other things from the natural world between what was familiar from home to what was new and unfamiliar. Soon, the instinct to compare faded and I began to flow easier, but India continued to take me by surprise.

What stories do I have from our wanderings North to South of Kerala? There was the time Iona and I arrived in Varkala after an intense week-long tour from Kochi through the hill country, and agreed to a slightly shabby looking room run by apparently friendly guys in a legit looking resort. Sure there was no furniture bar the bed and one chair, and there was no one else we could see staying there, and it was dark and dingy which was a hard feat considering we were on a sunshine filled beach town, but it was cheap. They offered us tea and talked about palm reading, then showed us a few card tricks and suggested we could all make fish curry later that night together. Sounded friendly enough. We did however have the advice of a good friend at home creeping in: watch out for sweet-talking sages. We slept, and took our travel weary selves to a two hour yin-yoga class the next morning. There's no better space to really just forget everything else and see how you're really feeling.

Walking back to the room after, there was heavy silence between us. One of us broke it saying “I don’t feel comfortable staying there” and the other agreed in the same breath. What had been tension and mild discomfort at staying in a place we felt uneasy in became a comedic moment of get home, pack all our stuff into our rucksacks as quickly as we could like drug smugglers, and walk out confidently handing over the padlock to our room and saying goodbye to the manager and his friends, weaving our way through the Varkala backstreets as quickly as we could, leaving the resort and dingy room behind us. We felt like criminals on the run, and were laughing as we walked quickly with our heavy, badly packed bags. A few months later, once Iona and I had parted ways as travel buddies, she texted me: “the guy that ran that dodgy place in Varkala has been arrested!" Turns out your instinct doesn't make stuff up, nor your wise friend back home.

And then there was our first encounter with The Seductive Indian. This is a phrase coined by a friend of a friend that I met in Bangalore, and comes from within India. I'm pretty sure there is The Seductive Scotsman too, and Seductive Swede or where ever you might be from. Good stereotypes exist and bad stereotypes exist, as do cultural differences. It turns out smiling and shaking a barman's hand a few times whilst passing as a friendly greeting might position you as someone willing to accept a "proposal". After declining a coffee from Ali, the man with the smile and handshake, and joining two Israeli friends on their scooters for a day trip to the Golden Island, 2 minutes into the trip suddenly this same Ali overtakes and cuts off our scooter and demands to know where my friend is taking "his girlfriend". He asked several other awful questions and seemed to be shaking with rage. Our two male friends managed to talk him down, which saw him revving his bike at least 12 times before tearing back to Varkala cliff. We were all a little rattled and checked over our shoulder for at least 10 minutes before we were clear.

This was the beginning of our search for the Golden Island which turned into the smallest adventure I've been on. We drove for hours over a very small space of land, looping and going up and down side streets, with the question “which way to the golden island?” becoming our mantra. Like Alice in Wonderland, left became right, right became left. We ended up back at the bridge we started on to find an American expat and ex-military man, accompanied by his Indian compadres, speed his giant boat towards us and pushing his Indian pal into the water as he did so. He direct us to the Golden Island, which was directly behind us. This guy had an air of Rambo meets Apocalypse Now about him, but his advice was good. We got there, we cooled down in the green strangely satisfying slimy water, and sunbathed (me under a towel as I'd burned badly the day before on Varkala beach).

But wait, my travels really began in Kochi. Iona and I had taken on a tour with GoMowgli and made two fast friends in Girish (Popcorn) and Jithin (Popeye). As they were new to Kerala, what might have been a hop-on hop-off bus tour with many backpackers was a private tour for the two of us and led by the two of them. They really allowed us to see parts of Kerala that a lone western traveller wouldn't have been permitted to see so easily.

We visited a fisherman's village as they brought in the morning catch, watching the auction of each basket go to big bucks businessmen and local sellers for their bike and basket. We listened to Freddie Mercury in Kashi Art Café drinking coconut coffee, and in the same day found a man singing morning ragas as meditation. His voice wasn't just a sound from his vocal chords but seemed to emerge from somewhere deep in his chest. We practiced yoga with Aji and Sanjee, and were mesmerised by the tabla accompanying a classical sitar performance.  Popcorn patiently took us to a hospital when a piercing in my ear cartilage became infected (I insisted on a new piercing before coming to India, don't say I'm not stubborn) in the same day that we sought out an Ayurvedic pharmacy for Iona. I met Sarah Auntie, one of the last remaining Jews living in Fort Kochi. When the Jews landed in Kerala seeking sanctuary, the King of Kerala promised them the land for their synagogue as long as the sun remained in the sky. The synagogue is still there, but most of the Jews have since left. Sarah Auntie remains, surviving her husband with no children, looked after by all the locals who see her as family.

Riju, our driver and one of the happiest men I've met, drove us fast and furiously (but ever safely) into the winding hills of Munnar. It was cold and damp (crows would have been more fitting here) but with a distinct lack of heaters to dry out the moisture and bring warmth. An unhappy sleep was forgotten on the bumpy one and a half hour jeep ride to the tea factory. It was more fun than any rollercoaster I've been on, and I would have laughed solid for the whole ride had the bumps not continued to knock the air out of me as I gripped with tight knuckles to stop myself being thrown out the back of the jeep. The fresh green tea leaves smelled like tea, which surprised me probably more than it should have. We ate thali off of giant banana leaves with our fingers, and I like to think I developed the knack pretty quickly; if I didn't, I still gave it gusto. (Use your middle three fingers to lift the food and your thumb to push it into your mouth).

Alleppey and Thekkady came and went quickly. There was time to relax on a quiet, lazy backwater boat ride; and again on a bamboo raft in a wildlife park. But my favourite part of the jungle was hiking 5km there and back, looking down and watching where I stepped (and looking out for spiders and leeches) when the sound of crickets grew louder and louder till it became the only sound inside and outside my head. It could have been the heat, but it felt meditative. Mentioning it to Iona after, she agreed the same thing had happened to her. India was full unusual noises and these noises produced so many different internal sensations in those first few weeks.

After weaving our way through hill country, we reached the cliff front of Varkala. Here we found gin that probably wasn't gin, the friendliest baristas in Coffee Temple who offered me free warm milk at night over a game of cards, and a resident labrador called Tony who co-owned my guest house. I woke every morning to strangely but endearingly Italian-New York sounding "Toh-nee! No! Hey Toh-nee!" by his owners (who were Russian and Malayali, not from New York). I think of all three of them with great affection. We practiced hatha yoga with Shiva, who wanted to start a revolution. We got locked out our guesthouse and had to find our way back to a friend's hammock through the backstreets, watching out for the street dogs who own the streets and beach at night.  I got sun burned and I took a big exhale after my first ten days in India. The jet lag was only starting to wear off, the language (Malayalam) was only beginning to sound familiar, the south Indian head wobble was only beginning to come naturally as a way to say hello, agree, disagree and show interest or disinterest (when words fail).

I can remember all this from the vantage point of five months in South India and many adventures that followed after. But at that point I was still very fresh faced and unsure of what India could or would be. So far it had been a great guided tour by two very cool guys from Go Mowgli, and a week in a westernised beach town. Looking back, Kerala was one of the most beautiful places I have visited and left me with a longing to go back.

Kerala is Gods' Own Country. It is the land of green and gold, stretching from tea plantations, endless palm trees that line the lush backwaters and the golden sands along the coast. The story goes that Kerala was raised from the sea by the sixth incarnation of Vishnu. Ever since it has been an abundant land of vegetation. It has the highest level of education of all Indian states, and everywhere you look at any time of day, buses of children immaculately dressed are on their way to and from school. 

Kerala comes from the word for coconut, and coconuts are of course abundant. There are tea plantations in the hills of Kerala, and you'll find chai here as stereotype would suggest. But it's less well known that south India takes pride in its coffee, the beans grown locally. Filter coffee in Kerala is nothing like filter coffee elsewhere. A small cup, usually metal that requires delicate fingers and cautious lips to avoid scalding, made with milk and plenty sugar is a strong hit of caffeine and sugar. It became a daily ritual.

This video by the Malayalam band, Thaikkudam Bridge, is my postcard from Kerala, with stunning videography and music that moves my soul. It's the best representation I've seen of what travelling around Kerala is like by train, tuk tuk, scooter and on bare foot. And this is my own photo story where these words have fallen short.

India 7: The Monsoon

It’s monsoon season here in South India. No, scrap that. There is a monsoon. Things rot here. Monsoon season brings endless rain, and there’s a distinct absence of fireplaces. Nothing to burn up the moisture. The life giving water drowns out the air so life grows and then rots. Mould seeps out of walls and seeks clean surfaces. Covers of books curl inwards, laptops must be left on with their small generators of dry heat, the film of moisture that sits on your skin and hair and clothes becomes tolerable. It must unless you want to explore the depths of damp and madness.

At first, the monsoon was akin to a snow-day. The quiet joy of needing to stay indoors, eat good food and read a book. Words flow easier then too. A break in the constant doing. Instead, you’re just being. And so, writing and words. Auroville is a new-age settlement, where seekers come to find what they seek. The Mother? The Matrimandir? At the very least, there’s a french bakery (Pondicherry’s influence). Fresh, crusty white bread with sharp blue cheese and tart red tomatoes are a true pleasure on the first rain-day. By day four, they lose their lustre.

As water continues to pour from the sky, the place that was once fertile with ideas and words begins to reach saturation. More noise is needed, more stimulus, more subject matter and inspiration. For the constant rain will at first water the little seeds of inspirations that were planted before the rains came, or before you came to the rain. But you must leave before it begins to drown them out and turn to rot. 

Auroville was a week of green, and rain, and moisture on every surface. Snow-days turned to cabin fever, and you began to understand the stories you’ve been told of a place in Australia where the humidity gets so bad it drives people to moments of madness. Not planned, but spontaneous suicide. Walking out in front of cars, and off of cliffs. It’s not that bad, of course. But you realise, it is for some. Reading in the newspaper of the floods in Chennai, the worst in a hundred years. Too many have lost their homes, their livelihoods, their lives. And the same at home! In Edinburgh and Cumbria. It gets to the stage you can’t imagine a world not drenched in water. The low pressure, the constant pounding down of rain, the moisture on every surface dampens your spirits, your mind, your spark. Too much water becomes suffocating.

The day the rains stop, you breathe deeply. Coco, the resident 16 year old cat who has been a companion most evenings on the damp couch, ventures outside. It has been an experience, one that was needed after the holy temples of Rameswaram and the crowds of Kanyakumari, and the fever and flu that was brought on by both. But, now, there is a wedding in Chennai!

It’s time to move on.

India 2: Portraits from Kochin, Kerala

Sarah Auntie is a ninety-two year old Jewish lady who lives in a clean, bright room next to a shop selling traditional Jewish lacework. She welcomes visitors to the shop from her chair next door, allowing you to interrupt her reading her morning prayers. She speaks both Yiddish and Malalayam, the language of Kerala. She survives her husband, and has no children. In her youth, she taught many locals the fine art of Jewish lacework, and is now looked after by the locals and a good friend who runs the lace shop. She was born in Kochin, met her Jewish husband in Kochin, and now has retired here. She is one of six remaining Jews in Kochin.

It is believed the Jews came to Kerala as early as 587 BC, following the destruction of their temple in King Solomon's time. After settling in Kochin, relations were very favourable. A Rabbi was made a Prince. And the land dedicated to the Synagogue was promised to them for as long as the sun burned in the sky. And so, the Jews came to Kerala and found refuge that still lasts. Until Israel was established as its own nation in 1947, there were 1000s of Jews in the city. After Israel's independence, most left. And now, there are only six Jews, including Sarah Auntie, living in the city. The Synagogue remains, in all its ornate candlelit beauty.

                          watching & preparing the morning's catch, fisherman & cats near kochin

                a traditional ayurvedic pharmacy, kochin

India 1: Kochin, Kerala

Kerala is the sound of crows in the trees at 3am. It's the smell of ayurvedic oils and incense. It's the sight of bats as big as gulls slowly flapping over your head amidst the bustle of a night market. It's masala dosas and chai for breakfast at 7am, drinking cold coconut coffee to the soundtrack of Freddie Mercury in a Kochin art gallery café, a thali platter and parrotha for dinner. It's persistent sticky heat and overhead fans, lazy mosquitos and inquisitive eyes following, the organised chaos of drivers, the precarious carefree pedestrians taking centre stage in the road, the honking of the car you're in, the honking of the motorbike that rumbles by loaded with a family of four. It's women wearing saris, the chatter of many school children, talking to your driver about arranged marriage, comparing cultural differences and learning never to get married on a 10th age (20, 30, 40 and so on). The word Kerala comes from "coconut", which you discover to your delight is in everything. Kochin gets its name from the Chinese, along with its fishermen's nets. Christianity landed here in or around 7AD and is embraced with the same colourful passion as Hinduism. Mother Mary, Krishna and 7pm evening calls from the Mosquie exist within metres of one another in peace. Kerala is green and gold, the contrast of life-giving colour and happy disrepair. Backwaters, sprawling jungle greenery and palm trees, beaches, street dogs, street cats and bats. Kerala is surreal and sublime.