Howdy y’all. Where was I.. Ah, swaying palms, coconuts and rice paddies in Alleppey, India.
We’d heard that one of the best ways to explore the scenic backwaters is to hire a houseboat to float you around for a couple days (complete with driver and cook to round out the fat white tourist experience). After hearing we’d have luck finding an environmentally friendly option down south (we’d heard stories of the damage the diesel-powered versions are causing), we hopped on the motorsickle and headed to a little town called Kollam, situated at the southern end of the backwaters on the southwest coast of India. Naturally, the bobble-headed madman we spoke to at the government run travel agency (I wish I’d recorded him – like watching a cartoon with rolling eyes and overexaggeration of every facial movement – pure entertainment) told us the only place to find what we were looking for (‘punting’ boats – sort of like big Venetian RV boats propelled with long sticks) was in Alleppey. Where we’d just come from. Awesome.
Slightly frustrated at the often contradictory Indian way of things, we gave up on the idea for a bit and decided to head to the beach to do a bit mo’ chillin’ and figure out our plan for Kate’s last chunk of time in India. Like a lot of beaches (and places) on the traveler’s trail in India, though, Varkala turned out to come with quite a bit of the tourist-inspired baggage. Wherever tourists congregate, so does an obnoxious mix of copy-cat restaurants, billboards advertising Kingfisher beer, hippie clothing shops and touts selling everything from jewelry to.. you guessed it, more hash. As well as the ever-present Indian tumbleweed aka garbage strewn here and there. Just enough to prevent you from truly enjoying the incredible natural beauty of India hiding beneath the surface. And another reminder of the mixed impact of tourists like myself. We bring money and with that the temptation to erase traditional lifestyles in pursuit of anything that will bring in money.
But as is always the case, when you venture off the tourist trail, you find amazing things. Wandering around some of the nearby local village roads one day, Kate and I noticed a crowd milling around a big tent on the side of the road. A few locals standing out front started waving at us. Before we knew what was happening, we were whisked inside and seated elbow to elbow with 100s of smiling local villagers at long picnic tables. Banana leaves were layed out before each of us and topped with massive amounts of rice and curries.
As we dug in with our fingers to the traditional south Indian ‘thali’ meal, we learned that it was all free, part of one of the town’s annual festivals supported by donations from each of the villagers. We were served by the all volunteer staff of young boys and older men, all smiling and checking on us constantly, eager to make sure that the honored guests (at least in our minds) were enjoying ourselves. We were. They invited us back for the evening’s temple festivities. As we filed out of the tent fat, happy and shaking our heads at yet another surprise encounter, we noticed a truck coming down the road with a baby elephant standing in the back. Party on..
We came back that night and watched as the town gathered for a very loud, very elaborate and completely confusing ritual that took place outside the temple. The baby elephant was there as were two young men performing in drag,
another chewing on leaves and dancing bare-chested in a trance while others poured oil on his head (??),
others banging on cymbals and yelling and more dressed in orange carrying strange wooden objects on their shoulders.
We didn’t understand a lick of it but stayed and watched as the whole thing rose to a boil and then spilled out onto the street under silver mylar streamers and paraded out of view as the sun set. This sort of shit seems to happen daily in India, the land of festivals.
The next day, it did. After stopping in a little village up the coast to walk around, the same exact thing happened. As we strolled down the street (the only white people for miles), we were again ushered inside a massive tent by smiling locals for yet another free lunch. They were celebrating their own version of the festival and just happened to hold the community lunch a day later. Yahtzee.
Amazed and recharged, we headed back to Alleppey to find that elusive solar and human-powered guilt-free dream of a backwaters-touring houseboat only to find disappointment at the hands of fast-talking agency touts yet again.. “You want punting houseboat? No problem! Follow me!”, “But sir, this has a diesel engine in it..” “Yes! Very good boat!” That same scenario played out over and over again. Eventually, we gave up a second time.. and took refuge in the Indian Coffee House and stacks and stacks of wonderful Bombay Toast. Somebody buy me a few shares of their stock stat.
We then headed back up to Kochi to return the motorcycle. With a few of our nine lives laying on the highways of south India, we kissed the rotten ground and thanked each and every one of the Hindu gods for our safe return. And jumped on the relative safety of a train heading south one last time. Final stop – the end of the railway and the southernmost point in India, Kanyakumari.
Kanyakumari is a little fishing village that sits on a literal point at the end of the country, with the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea coming together at its base. It’s a pilgrimage site for thousands of Indians coming from all over the country in overcrowded buses to worship at the Devi temple (Hindu goddess). It’s the first place I’d seen in India that actually had more Indian tourists than Western tourists. In addition to the temples, it’s spot at the tip of the country brings people from all over to watch the amazing sunsets and sunrises each day, visible over the ocean from the same spot. On full moon nights, you can apparently see both the sun set and moon rise at the same time over the water.
Searching for a quiet spot to watch the sunset, Kate and I saw firsthand the beach=human catbox phenomenon I’d heard about earlier. As we walked along a trail from the road to the water one evening, the beach that appeared orange from a distance suddenly looked polka-dotted. At first it looked like dirt but as the stench rose, it became clear that it was actually human poop. Covering the beach from one end to the other. It’s apparently commonplace in coastal areas for some of the poor people to shit on the beach. And they clearly do it a LOT. Stunned and confused, I wondered why they’d do it there, ruining this spectacular setting in their own backyard. Another in a long line of things I will never understand about the environmental situation in India, a beautiful country suffering under the crush of 1.2 billion people struggling to get by. The guy selling ice cream just a few feet away from the piles didn’t seem to mind. “Ice cream here!”
(This woman was clearly embarrassed by her countrypeople’s toilet habits. Just kidding. Thought it was a beautiful image and wanted to include it. Passed her as I was wandering through the nearby fishing communities. Incidentally, Kanyakumari is one of the areas that was hit by the tsunami in 2004.)