India - March 27, 2008
So traveling alone is fun and all, but sometimes you want to have someone to share it with...so please forgive the length of this e-mail as I share it with you now.
I had no idea what to expect when I arrived in Cochin, in Kerala, an Indian state in the Southwest along the Arabian Sea. I thought it was going to be a tour of some sort, but it turned out that I had a private driver/guide, Antony, who is now my best bud. He was so great and fun and friendly. I'm glad I had someone like him, and not some grumpy old man, or my trip would not have been half as much fun. Most of the places I went were fairly touristy, although 99 percent of the tourists were other Indians, so it didn't really seem like it to me. I didn't see many Westerners at all, just a few Brits, Europeans and maybe a South African or two. I did see a few Europeans traveling with their small children which I thought was neat and something I fully intend to do with my (future) kids. I spent the first night in a hotel in Cochin. I didn't do much that first day as it was raining and late. I basically just stared out my hotel window in amazement at the city...and the traffic!
India is the second most populace country in the world with over 1.1 billion people. Seriously, though, with the way they drive, I'm surprised anyone has survived there at all! It was complete and utter chaos; people, bikes, motorcycles, motorized rickshaws, cars, trucks, animals, mud, rocks and potholes. Forgive me if I go on and on about the driving, but I spent a good three to five hours in the car each day so it was a huge, and really fun, part of my trip. The first two days I was still in shock and Antony would giggle every time I cowered against the door and squealed in terror as a huge bus (barely) avoided hitting us head on. Pedestrians seemed to not notice that there were cars on the road and would walk on the shoulder, in the middle of the road, where ever, without a care in the world. I saw motorcycles packed with 4 or more people...even whole families with a little boy in front, then dad, then little sister, then mom riding side saddle on the back with her sari blowing in the wind. The most exciting time was when we were stuck behind a petrol tanker (and not the shiny, metal, safe looking one's you'd see in the States) and Antony wanted to pass it. We were on a main road with lots of oncoming traffic. We started to pass the petrol tanker, but it too got over into the oncoming lane to pass the truck in front of it...which happened to be some sort of plastic tanker covered in skull and crossbones that was full of sulfuric acid. Now we're boxed in, in the oncoming lane and we cannot see what is coming at us in front of the tanker. I really thought my trip was going to end in a fiery ball of sulfuric acid.
By day six, however, I found riding in the car to be totally fun, like a game. The object is to pass the vehicle in front of you at all costs, regardless of the conditions, whether on a mountain curve, just before the crest of a hill or into oncoming traffic. The closer you get to the car you're passing and the oncoming vehicle (usually a huge bus leaning at a precarious angle looking like it's going to topple over on you) the higher the score. If you hit your brakes, you lose points. If you manage to pass down the middle between the cars, you get an extra life and if you pass a car or bus while it is passing another car or bus, you move to the next level. I think I had about 100 lives and was on level 50 at least! Mind you all of this is happening while you are on the left side of the car, on the left side of extremely small or windy mountain roads, making it all the more exciting. I have never heard so many horns blasting in my entire life...it is the other music of India.
On the second day we traveled to Alleppey, known as the Venice of the East because of all its backwaters and canals, and I took an overnight houseboat cruise. I thought there would be other passengers but it turns out it was a one bedroom with just me and the three crewmen (I have no idea where they slept!). At first I was a bit worried I wouldn't be able to entertain myself alone on the boat for 24 hours...but it was amazing how fast the time flew by. I could have sat on that boat staring at the scenery and people and other house boats for weeks and weeks. It was so beautiful and seeing how the people lived along the water was fascinating. The water is surrounded by rice patties, so the houses are set along tiny, narrow strips of land between the canal and the swamp like paddies. It rained off and on most of the day which was great, it kept the air cool and the bugs away (except for the baby spiders on the boat who occasionally liked to swing from my hair or crawl down the front of my shirt!) I was totally dry under the canopy of the boat, lounging and eating wonderful local food cooked by my own, personal chef. I felt like a Maharani Queen! It was fun to wave at all the other passing houseboats and was a really romantic setting. Houseboating through Kerala would make a wonderful and unique honeymoon! I've seen fireworks in some amazing places (over the castle in Edinburgh, on the beach in Nice) but none compared to the fireworks from a distant Hindu temple that I was watching from my cozy swinging seat on the houseboat to the sounds of millions of frogs, insects and other jungle creatures.
I'm not always the best at doing laundry, sometimes I forget to put it in the dryer and have to wash the mildew out of it a few days later when I remember. But I will never, ever be that careless and wasteful again...not after seeing about 1,000 women standing knee deep in the river scrubbing and beating clothes against a rock. Now when I turn that dial (to the water saving setting!) I will give thanks to Allah or Krishna or Mr. Maytag for this one (of many) conveniences in my life.
On the third day we drove up into the mountainous jungles to Thekkady. This is the point I started humming Indian Jones in my head (and never stopped). It was just so fitting! We passed endless cardamom plants (known as the queen of the spices), rubber trees, pineapple groves, coffee fields and, eventually, endless tea plantations. In Thekkady I saw some traditional Kalari martial artists, who were magnificent, and then a Kathakali show, which is a Hindu dance show typically put on during Hindu festivals. It was the strangest thing I have ever seen. It was so bizarre that I thought they had to be joking around (or more aptly "taking the piss" as the British would say) but they were all very serious and, apparently, it is a very important tradition.
When I was younger, maybe 18, I made a list of things I wanted to do in my life...attend an event at the White House, sell one of my paintings...ride elephants in India! Check one off the list baby, WOOT! I was surprised how much you could feel the elephant's spine and movements as it walked. The setting for the half hour ride was incredible, a secluded track through the jungle. From my perch on high, I saw a big snake slither through the bushes and smelled flowers from coffee plants. I don't like the taste or smell of coffee, but a coffee flower has the most amazing aroma in the world, fresh and sweet with a hint of vanilla.
I didn't think anything would be able to top how great the houseboat was until day 4. I started off with a sunrise boat cruise through the Periyar Wildlife and Tiger Sanctuary, had some of the most fun (and windy, potholed and animal filled) driving on the 100 kilometer ride to Munnar and saw the most amazing views and scenery imaginable. Then I went 4 wheeling through a tea plantation to one of the highest points in Kerala, a mountain that is 8,200 feet above sea level. The Kolukkumalai tea factory is at the top which serves the best tea in the world and everything was so beautiful and awe inspiring. It is no exaggeration to say it was probably the best day of my entire life.
Munnar was an interesting village…perched in the mountains surrounded by tea plantations, national parks, waterfalls and dams. Day five was a bit more relaxing than the rest. I was hoping to sleep in a little but it was impossible what with the village mosque loudly calling to prayer before dawn, the Hindu temple ringing the time and announcing a prayer at 5 to every hour and the Christian church ringing its bells and announcing a prayer on the hour! Plus there was a non-stop cacophony of car horns from about 6am onwards. I visited two of the nearby dams and went speedboating...notice a pattern? have I ever mentioned I love boats before :) I once went peddle boating on the Vlatava river in Prague so when I saw they had peddle boats at the Kundala Dam, I made Antony go with me...I think that will be one of my things from now on...peddle boat in cool places...anyone want to go peddle boating by the Jefferson Memorial when I get back :) I also visited a waterfall and watched the sun set from the top of a nearby mountain. The next day I woke up again, before the crack of dawn, to make the three hour drive back to Cochin to catch my flight. It was amazing to drive down the mountains at dawn…the clouds were so low we were looking down on them!
All in all it was the perfect holiday (except, maybe, for the wicked sunburn I got out on the lake on the speedboat) and the most enchanting, amazing, and enriching trip I've ever been on. The people were so friendly, the food was divine and the scenery was transcendent. If you only make one trip in your life, forget Paris, forget Rome, go to Kerala. Hopefully I'll see you there! I hope to go back again, maybe I'll even buy a holiday home or start up an adventure company with mountain trekking, absailing down waterfalls, and the most extreme sport of all...riding in a car!