Saturday, March 12, 2011

Back on the Beach and the Long Ride North

Well, I am on the train now, got on yesterday and spent my first of three nights aboard the Himsagar Express. The last few days were pretty nice, and this train ride is marking a major transition. I started at the sunny beach and now I'm headed 3700km north into the cold, the mountains, the snow and I still only have flip-flops as footwear! I haven't even worn shoes (other than rock climbing shoes that is) since I left Seattle in mid-November, and I've only worn pants two or three times!

So anyways, I woke up at Varkala Beach and since I got in in the dark, I had no idea what the place even looked like. In the morning I set out in search of breakfast where I found a place that actually had wifi (I think it's the only time in India I've found free wifi, though the food cost extra to make up for it I guess), got some work done on the computer and headed off to look around this new place. The beach itself is not huge, but quite nice and since it was so hot out the water looked very inviting.

The waves here are actually pretty good at times, some were probably 6 feet high, and I wanted to have some fun. I rented a boogie board for an hour (100 rupees) and got out into the surf. This was the first time I've ever done it, and it was a total blast. While it may not be as cool as surfing, catching a big wave and riding it all the way to shore is an amazing feeling. One hour flew by, and I realized I was getting a bit of a sun burn on my back so I decided to call it a day on the beach. I went to a restaurant, ate lunch, and read my book (Return to Mars) for the next few hours, before watching the sunset and returning to my room.

In the evening, I spent quite a while washing cloths in my room (I needed clean cloths for the upcoming train journey), a bit of time writing, more reading and a very small bit of research and planning on what I was actually going to do up north. I began to realize how quickly my time in India is coming to an end and I started to worry about that. What will I even be able to see in the north given my time restrictions? I really don't know what is going to happen, but that certainly won't stop me from going and finding out.

The next morning I rented a scooter for the day. I may not have been able to do the week long motorcycle trip I was dreaming about, but I needed to get on a bike and explore on my own, even if it were just for one day. I set out towards the main town to visit the train station so I could schedule my trip back to Kanniyakumari and stopped in at a local restaurant for breakfast. Restaurants down here are often called 'hotels' which is confusing, but by looking at buildings you can always tell what is actually a place to eat and what is actually a place to sleep. I asked someone about this and got some answer about how back in the day they used to have a room or two to rent before turning exclusivity into a restaurant, but it didn't really make any sense...

After eating, I picked a direction, sort of at random, and headed off without a map or a plan. Within a few minutes, I began passing under these large towers built over the roads that were made of palm and bamboo lashed together. One of them had a group on the ground and two guys climbing on it as they built it, and I stopped to watch. They told me it was for some 'elephant festival' that was going on two days later. I had seen the stands before, and they are for attaching huge religious images in brilliant neon lights. I asked if I could climb up and watch, but they said no. I was determined however, and after chatting for a few minutes they said OK and I climbed about half way up, sitting above the cars driving on the road beneath me and watching the tower being built. Naturally, they all got a kick out of this white guy climbing around and I knew it was the start of a good day.

A few minutes down the road, I saw some guys taking down a tree, and being my job back home I had to have a look. I was initially watching from the street, but when the saw me they invited me in through the gate and I watched from next to the house. I explained to them that tree work was what I did back in America, and that I used a 'cutting machine', pretending to use a chainsaw and making the noise, which they got a kick out of.

This wasn't exactly Seattle Tree Preservation quality work (my company back home), but the guys did know what they were doing. All the cutting was done with a machete and all the ropes were just manila, but they were using pull ropes, doing face cuts and using a lowering line wrapped around a tree to control the pieces which was fun to see. At one point (this picture) the climber even tied himself in to the tree, rather than just hanging on for dear life! I watched for a while, took a bunch of pictures, chatted with them and went on my way.

I thought I was headed east, away from the water and into the forest and hills, but as I came upon this fishing village I realized that was not the case, haha. I talked briefly to some men selling fish and then walked to the beach where I saw other men laying out fishing nets. I went over to watch, but some guy sort of waved me away rather than being very welcoming, so I ended up just leaving.

I spent the next few hours driving through what seemed like an endless series of small towns which all looked about like this, and in more rural areas that were small farm based. Everywhere I went I got amused looks and states, and kids were always smiling, waving and saying hello. These were not tourist areas and it was very clear that foreigners don't get out where I was.

Getting hungry, I stopped at some little hole-in-the wall place having no idea what kind of food they served. It had a number of people in it, and of course no one spoke English. It was exactly the kind of place I was looking for. I sat down and they brought out a banana leaf, I 'washed' it off with some warm water, and they they started piling on rice and various sauces. Of course, all of this is eaten with your fingers. From time to time they would stop by with a bucket of one thing or another, pouring it over my rice. It was all pretty delicious, and only cost 25 rupees.

I eventually made my way out of the back-roads and found the main highway (47), which was still just a two lane road but in good condition. This gave me the opportunity to go full throttle on the bike for a while (which is still only 80kph) and was a lot of fun. I still didn't really know where I was or where I was going, but eventually I realized I'd gotten a long ways from home and turned back. The whole time I was riding, I was passing one amazing mosque after another and up to that point I did not realize how many Muslims were in this part of India. Just another example of how the majority of Muslim people live in peace and harmony with those around them, never get any attention, and that it is just a tiny fraction of extremists who give the religion a bad name.

I continued my ride, but was getting tired and was not to far from my place back at Varkala, so I sat down next to some water with the intent of reading a book. I should have known this wouldn't happen, because as soon as I sat down I had a group of kids around me chatting. I ended up talking to them for probably an hour about the area, about themselves, and they asked me a lot about myself and life in America. I was tired and wanted to get back to my room before it was dark, so I said goodbye and took off. That night I ate some ice cream (first time in ages!) and hung out with a group of Swedes who were staying at the guest house, but it was a totally uneventful evening, other than finishing my book and being attacked by so many mosquitoes during the night I woke up freaking out and thinking I had serious bed bugs.

I have to say, seeing India by motorcycle is the way to go, hands down. I just got this tiny taste of it on one day, but if I could do it all again without a doubt I'd take 6 months (the limit of the visa) and buy an Enfield. I am very jealous of those who have the opportunity do to it this way.

The next morning I caught the train back to Kanniyakumari which was more than an hour late but I had nothing to do anyways so it didn't matter. It was sort of funny taking the train, because it was very close to the route I'd taken via bus a few days earlier, but this time in much greater comfort. I guess I took the bus last time just because I wanted to suffer, haha.

Some of the scenery on the way down. Everywhere seemed to be just small towns (aka two blocks worth of buildings surrounding the road), coconut trees and banana plantations. The hills in the background are actually the eroded remains of India’s oldest mountain range and as I passed them I both wanted to be on top of them, and was getting excited about northern India where I'd finally see the real mountains.

This is it, the end of the line literally. Kanniyakumari, being on the southern tip of India is where the rail line just ends, and that's what it looks like.

Returning to the town I'd already been to I knew there wasn't a whole lot to look forward to and just wandered slowly, past this church, past the fisherman, through the narrow streets where the people actually life, and eventually to the tourist area where I found a decent room with a view of the water.

I'd intended to go swimming at the tip while the sun was going down, but I totally mistimed it and the sun had disappeared 10 minutes before I got to the water. I was busy trying to get my last blog post up because I was falling behind, haha. The beach was still crowded with Indians laughing, splashing and playing in the water (but only a few feet out since most people here can't swim) and I stood in the water myself, just smiling and watching it all again.

The next morning I spent getting ready for the long train ride ahead. I got breakfast, took an extra good shower, put clean cloths on and went to the barber for a shave. After that I simply went to the train station and waited for the 2pm train that would take me all the way to Jammutawi.

Some more facts about the train: As mentioned it is the longest route in India, going 3715km, taking 71 hours, making 69 stops, averaging 58kph, crossing 9 states, taking 3 nights and running once each week. Yah, it's quite a trip.

I got on the train and found the spot that will be my home for the next four days, seat number 23 (not 31!). I decided if I was going to do this, I'd at least do it in some manor of comfort and go for 3rd AC Class rather than Sleeper Class. Sleeper of course is much cheaper (about 700 rupees verses 1764 rupees), but AC is just so much cleaner, quieter, provides three meals a day, clean sheets pillows and a blanket, has an outlet to plug in a computer and as the name implies has air conditioning. I figured paying less than $40 to get all the way across India, with three meals a day and a a bed and roof over my head for three nights wasn't such a bad deal. The downside (besides the price, which is a minor issue) is that it is a bit 'less authentic' as the majority of Indians travel Sleeper Class, and it is nearly impossible to take good pictures from inside the train through the dirty double-pane windows. All things considered, I'm happy I went with 3rd AC Class.

The space in the picture is really only half mine. During the day it is two seats, 23 and 24. The table folds up, but with two people sitting opposite, there isn't much leg room. The person sitting opposite me is a guy named D.R. Nair, who is the director of a company that manufactures and exports lamps, curtain rods and things like that, has traveled to England many times on business and was down in Kanniyakumari to visit his mom. He says he doesn't really like the train.

Well, that is where I am at now, spending the next few days reading books, killing time on my computer and looking out the window. Right now I'm watching cows and fields, the people in the berth next to me are watching some kind of Indian movie on a laptop, and although it's 1pm many people are wrapped up in blankets laying down like it's still night time.

I believe my month of internet service with my wireless ends soon, and plus I'm not sure it will work anyways where I am going in the north. From here on out blog posts are likely to be more sporadic rather than the every few days I've managed to keep up for the past 4-ish months, so just a heads up that I'm not dead! As I said earlier, I really have no idea what I'll do or what I'll be able to do up north, but as always I'm sure once I show up, I'll figure something out and it will be awesome.

Also, my dad said he is OK with looking after my place a bit longer and since I got the OK from my boss earlier, that means I AM GOING TO NEPAL AFTER INDIA! The trip goes on!! That said, after a month or so in Nepal, I WILL be returning to Seattle without a doubt, putting me back on home soil early to mid-April.

Thank you so much dad, my trip wouldn't be possible without you.