Archive for January, 2010

Planes, trains, boats and automobiles

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

Over the past few weeks AKB and I have weathered a full spectrum of transportation experiences, ranging from miserable to surprisingly pleasant. Since our travel emotions (ranging from gleeful to stabby) are shaped by the mode of transportation we surrender to, let me structure my retelling of our return to India around these parameters.

We escaped the monsoon downpour of Sri Lanka’s northern cultural triangle by bus. AKB and I have already complained at length about Sri Lankan buses in these blogs, and I hate to continue to rail on them. It’s not really fair, is it? I mean, why should one expect some sort of ventilation system in 90-degree/100% humidity weather? It’s asking too much. Being pressed against a dozen other bodies for a few hours ought to wick the sweat, no?

Given our prior experiences with Lankan buses, AKB and I high-fived each other in anticipation of a relaxing train journey back south. “No more buses! Yay!” We should have known better. After all, throughout our trip, every time we make this sort of declaration (yay, hot water! yay, we’ve mastered the cryptic railway timetables…) we have inevitably jinxed ourselves. And so, after several hot and humid hours of sightseeing in Anuradhapura, we were kindly informed that our afternoon train would not, in fact, be stopping in Negombo — where we were to spend our last day in the country. And this is how we found ourselves on yet another Sri Lankan bus, careening full-speed down a two-lane highway, overtaking cars, rickshaws and scooters in a torrential downpour. By this point, we were used to bus travel and had set our expectations low. But our abrupt dumping on a dark street in what we were told was Negombo was punctuated by the fact that, after a five-or-so-hour journey through the rain, our packs were now soaked with water, dirt and god knows what else. Harumph. Luckily, our brief stay in Negombo turned out to be nice and relaxing, with a cush (and pricey) room at a well-run hotel. We celebrated our last day in Sri Lanka with an excellent rice and curry at some hole in the wall, and a ginormous serving of Kottu Roti, which we washed down with beer in our air-conditioned pad.

In the early morning, we cabbed over to the airport in bleary, eager anticipation, for we had booked business class seats back to India. B-class was all that was available, and we certainly enjoyed it. Unfortunately, we somehow missed the business-class lounge at the airport, so only got half the experience. But, frankly, the cush seats, hot towels and ceremonious unfolding of placemats for breakfast brought us unexpected joy. After weeks of first-world-suffering in rolling sardine cans, we took in these perks with utter glee; all seventy minutes worth.

***

We landed in Trivandrum, India and quickly made our way to the train station. Oh, the Indian Railways. How they now appeared to us modern and efficient, replete with reserved seats and available timetables. Alright, the whole system is practically undecipherable without having an advanced degree, but its massive stations and endless acronyms prove it to be a functional means of transportation. This, we got. This, we’d done before and were comfortable with. It was by now familiar, and we accepted the Indian train system’s warts and idiosyncrasies with a chuckle. It is a graceful old lady of a system, with a vast network and aging cars, but it had gotten us where we needed to go surprisingly reliably. With cockiness, we assumed that we understood its intricacies, and thus we would jinx ourselves in the days to come. But on this day, it got us to Varkala with speed.

We spent a couple of days in Varkala. The main draws are a couple of beaches and a cliff-side strip of restaurants perched between them, overlooking the ocean. The guide-books tout it as a lighter, more relaxed version of Goa, but it is literally a kilometer-long chain of restaurants and shops, each begging for the attention of tourists; the former with multi-ethnic cuisines, the latter with “please, sir, look at sarong, good price for you.” It’s a baby Vegas strip, and too little of anything for us to make us stay. Well, at least we had some excellent cappuccinos and a tan.

As I’ve said before, AKB and I are very much alike in that we can never be satisfied, especially when traveling. We don’t want to be like every other tourist, but drop us in a town with nothing going for it but an ancient ruin and we whine for hours. It’s the ever-looming existential question we’ve attempted to tackle throughout this trip. Surely there is a middle-ground to be found, but Varkala was not it. On new year’s eve we put on a brave face and had dinner on the strip, but before long we had had it. Loads of people (both local and not), dressed up for celebration, cruising one restaurant after another, evaluating this one’s 90s dance hit and that one’s psy-trance… We were cynical, still in our rut. We retired early, both tired and cranky, unable to surrender to the cheesefest outside.

After checking out, we headed for the train station. Unwilling to be bamboozled by the lone dickhead rickshaw driver, we hiked quite a ways with our packs before getting picked up by a local guest-house owner. He took us to the train station, warning us that the train wouldn’t leave for another six hours, and that his cousin’s father could give us a ride for a good price. We were distrustful. When everyone is trying to sell you something, and most are trying to get the most they can from you, it’s hard not to be. But, we were proved wrong, and said guy got us a cheap taxi ride up to Alleppey. We spent the next few hours in relative silence, and I pondered the contradictions that arise during travel — how relatively good, generous people steel themselves with defensive walls of cynicism and distrust and short-tempers. How, in search of some mythically “real” experience, one has expectations exactly when they oughtn’t. And, how that tourist’s experience is manufactured whether they like it or not — surely there’s a post-modern philosophical text about that somewhere.

***

We spent only one night in Alappuzha, aka Alleppey, but it was, refreshingly, what we had been after over the last few weeks. No tourist restaurants. And nightlife in the form of night markets, buzzing with traffic and people. It wasn’t the biggest or best we’d ever been to, by any stretch, but it was antidote to boredom. And, we had some of the best street food we’ve ever had: after a glass of sugar-cane juice, we sampled some deep-fried battered peppers, with some fiery chili sauce. My mouth burning with deliciousness, I even exclaimed that I was finally eating the street food I had been anticipating all along. Some people like bland, overpriced curries at a beach resort. I, on the other hand, prefer this. Sampling something authentic and not being hassled by a shop-owner for your business, this was a moment of bliss, and it was worth the wait.

The draw to Alleppey was the town’s elaborate system of canals. In fact, Kerala is known for its backwaters, and we got up extra early the next morning to take a cruise while the light was good (we are, after all, Photographers, aren’t we?) For the next five hours we floated through canals and lakes, paddled by a couple of seventy-something-year-old men. The more talkative of the two (not the one who, as AKB put it, looks like an Indian George Clooney) told us he had been touring the area for thirty years. He pointed out schools, a two-hundred-person boat reserved for races, churches and rice paddies. We got to hold a hawk. We had some chai in a dark tea shack. We relaxed and held each other, floating on in our Indian gondola.

***

Managing to score a fantastically priced taxi, we drove up in style to Cochin. The city is split into a few distinct towns, Fort Cochin and Ernakulam being the two most visited. Suddenly, our prayers whining was being answered. In the Fort area we explored the meandering streets, visiting old churches and the oldest synagogue in the Commonwealth. Along the water is a lengthy strip of spice shops, picturesque not with large vats of colored goods as you might imagine, but rather with busy commerce — weathered traders with sacks of wares behind them, trucks being loaded for their onward journeys, goats wandering into storefronts to steal a bite… it was a photographic goldmine, and AKB and I were happy for it. I dubbed this area a little SOHO, for it also houses an emerging art scene, and galleries and studios are sprinkled among its dilapidated buildings. We spent some time chatting with an artist family, looking at photographs and paintings.

The rest of our time here was spent in neighboring Ernakulam, where we watched the latest Bollywood film, 3 Idiots, which we enjoyed immensely. In fact, our entire stay in the Cochin area had been wonderful. We had finally rediscovered our joy for travel and all was right with the world. We had even managed to book a couple of train tickets to get to Goa, which were difficult to book during the holiday season.

And so we found ourselves at the train station at 11:30pm, waiting for the train. We were tired and had everything packed for the night train — extra layers here, a pillow and sleep sheet there… We had it figured out. Except that we didn’t. Apparently, we hadn’t deciphered the acronym on our tickets that told us we were wait-listed for the first leg of the journey. Never assume you know anything in India, or you will be schooled. Panicked and livid, we managed to get a refund and found another hotel, checking in at one in the morning. And that is how Cochin managed to keep us in its loving arms for another day.

***

We managed to book a night bus to get us out of Cochin, and deliver us in air-conditioned comfort (it even came with blankets! where are we??) in Mangalore, the transport hub we had been trying to reach for the prior couple of days. Lonely Planet describes Mangalore as “not an especially picturesque” place to visit. That may be true, but it most definitely did not suck. In fact, it was a completely hassle-free place to kill six hours, with friendly people and delicious food. Seriously, if you ever find yourself in Mangalore, head straight to Janatha Deluxe for some amazing and affordable food (just note that the map in Lonely Planet is wrong.) We had such a great breakfast that we came back for a Keralan thali lunch, which was even better. Hands down, one of the best Indian meals I have had in my life.

***

Our bellies full, and legitimate train tickets in hand, we eventually boarded a train to Goa. As we continue our journey north, I’d like to think that AKB and I are getting wiser to travel — not only its emotional trials, but logistical pitfalls as well. We’ve done planes, trains, boats and automobiles so far, each to varied success. We may soon add scooter to the list, and if we do it will surely come with its own trove of stories.