Thursday, March 10, 2011

Striking out, Then Striking Gold in the South

Greetings from Varkala, Kerala. Once again, I find myself at a tourist beach and while it's nice it's really not where I wanted to be right now. The past few days have been the first real bit of disappointment of the trip, but as seems to happen, a 'local' came to my rescue and I ended up having a wonderful and truly unique experience!

(also, this is blog post number 30 for this trip, does that count for anything?? haha)

So after doing a bunch of research and getting my ticket for the Himsagar Express all the way up India, (which I mentioned in the last blog) I found a restaurant and sat down to eat. They didn't speak any English, but they had an English menu and pointed to what was available at that hour, pretty much just dosas. A dosa is a thin pancake-type thing, which you tear apart with your fingers (as most Indian food) and dip in the various sauces. After eating, I returned to my room and spent a bunch of time writing the previous blog post, then headed out into the town of Alleppey.

My mission for the day was to find a bicycle to rent for the day, explore the town and surrounding area, and continue my search for a houseboat partner, but this proved to be far more difficult than I'd expected. I literally walked for hours in search of a bike to rent, talking to travel booking agents, taxi drivers, shop owners and more. I even came upon probably three or four bike shops, some selling new bikes and some repairing (usually by banging on them with a hammer) old bikes, but I couldn't find a bike anywhere! It was hot out, I was hungry and discouraged, but I guess it was an interesting way to see the town and it's people. This was a corner store selling nothing but bananas, which for some reason I found very amusing.

Also on the lookout for other backpackers, or anyone, to share a houseboat with my eyes were always open, but I had no luck at this either, I hardly saw any other tourists besides newly married Indian couples, and I didn't think they would be interested in sharing a boat with me!

I did have some luck in my search for other travelers because I met two Canadian girls, Tiffany and Whitney. Of course I asked them about sharing a boat, but they had just finished doing the boat thing so I missed my chance by a day joining them. We met up for dinner that night and after dinner went to a local bar. The bar was pretty funny, it was a total local joint, and while it might get a foreigner once in a while, I wouldn't be surprised if this was about the first ever females to ever enter the bar, haha. Nightlife is pretty minimal here in India, and the bars close at 10:30pm, so once that rolled around we called it a night.

Having totally given up on finding someone to share a houseboat with, I opted to just do a short day tour. I woke up at 7am and wandered the waterway in search of the best deal for a boat. What I ended up with was a three hour tour for 600 rupees. I came out here for this, I was going to see the backwaters dang it even if it wasn't how I wanted to!

Leaving the spot where the boat was tied up and getting out to the lake was a shining example of just how full of trash India is. In the space of what was probably three city blocks, the propeller of the boat became entangled in plastic bags and other garbage FIVE times, each time having to be pulled out of the water and untangled to resume our journey. 

Once we got out into the bigger water the trash was no longer an issue, and I began to see what I was missing by not renting a houseboat. Apparently there are 1000 of these kind of boats here in the state of Kerala, and hundreds of them are based right here in Alleppey. This is one of the two-bedroom boats with AC, but they come in many different sizes and styles. Seeing how big and nice they looked (and they come with a chef who cooks all your meals!) I was seriously bummed that I didn't rent one, but it was too much money to do solo, plus I think it'd be rather boring to do alone.

Life for the locals here seems pretty interesting. People live right on the water, often with boat being their only means of transportation and their means of work. My guide told me about half the people are rice farmers, but the others make their money fishing, guiding (during the tourist season), boat building, cutting shore grass to sell for feed, collecting shellfish and other things related to the waterways. I got to see all this and more from my boat, if only for a brief moment.... This photo is a woman with a fishing pole. 

Oh, I also saw something amazing! For literally the first time on my trip I saw two people cutting brush with weedwackers, and they were actually wearing SAFETY GLASSES! Wow!

We made a brief stop for breakfast and continued cruising around looking at this water-based way of life. I was rather surprised, while it was only a three hour boat ride (a boat I had to myself) I really did get to see a lot of this way of life, if only for a few seconds at a time. People were everywhere doing all sorts of tasks. In addition to the jobs I mentioned above, I watched people tapping coconut trees to make beer, washing themselves, doing laundry, taking the public ferries and more. We passed the high school which people take the boat to, saw the 'floating hospital' boat that goes around providing medical care and saw one of the chundan vallam (snake boats), a traditional race where the 30+ meter long boat is paddled by 100 people! This is picture is of a man gathering mangoes. His partner was climbing the tree with a stick, knocking the fruit lose and letting it fall into the water, while he would swim out and collect them as they fell. As we passed, he threw one to me to eat. We made our way back into town, getting stopped by garbage just as many times on the way in and I disembarked from the boat. I still wish I'd been able to share a houseboat with someone, but even the short day tour was quite enjoyable.

Realizing there was really nothing else to do in town, I began another search, this time for the motorcycle or scooter I was hoping to rent and ride around for a week or so before catching the train on the 11th. Just like the bike, this was a totally hopeless search. I had no idea it would be so difficult to find one out here since it's a pretty well established spot on the tourist trail, but in hindsight I guess people come here just to rent a boat and leave.

As I was walking around, I checked out a snack stand, and noticed the apples they had sitting out. They were a little piece of home, Washington state apples all the way in India! Despite not really liking red delicious apples, I was going to buy one of them until I heard they were 25 rupees each... pass! I wandered aimlessly around town a bit more, sat by the garbage filled canal to read and stopped by a book store to pick up a few books for 20 rupees each. For some reason, nearly all the books were fiction, with most of them being cheap thrillers and a surprising number of Star Trek fan novels.

As I continued my aimless wandering through town, I noticed some locals fishing in the dirty canal. Now I'd never eat fish that came from these waters, but people have different standards out here, haha. I sat down watching a man with a simple pole, just a piece of bamboo with a three foot piece of line and a hook on it, dipping the bait in the water between the lillypads and other marine plants. We got to talking and he introduced himself as Rajesh, and said that fishing was just his hobby. He had a plastic bag with half a dozen fish already, and caught another small one while I as there.

He was from the town, and asked me if I had any plans for the evening. I said no, and he offered to take me on his scooter. It wasn't exactly clear what he was offering, but I had nothing to do for the evening and I hopped on the back of his bike. He ended up giving me a tour of the town, telling me about different buildings and a little about the town. He also took me past the beach which I wasn't really aware existed, and in hindsight I wish I had known because it would have been much better hunting grounds to find other travelers to share a boat with... With the tour he dropped me back at my hotel, and that was that.

The next morning I was ready to get out of town. Since I couldn't find a motorbike to rent here, I decided that since I already had my train ticket out of Kanyakumari, I'd just head there. That way, when I'd finished riding it after a few days I would be at the right spot to catch my train, rather than being in some other town and having to worry about more travel. I caught a public bus just after 8am and it was packed, leaving me to stand. Eventually I found a spot behind the rail, next to the driver and above the engine cover to sit which was OK, and later on an actual seat opened up. The ride was 5 hours long, and passed through a seemingly unending line of small towns and billboard covered shops which to my untrained eye all looked the same.

The 5 hour ride still didn't get me to my destination, it only got me to the town of Travandrum. After asking a few questions at the bus stand, I found out that I had nearly two and a half hours to kill before the bus that would actually take me to Kanyakumari would leave, so once again I set myself to aimless wandering, this time in even more heat and will my full backpack. There really wasn't much to see in the center of town and other than getting some food at a local shop I did nothing while waiting.

Finally the bus came, and after a 3 hour ride, I had reached Kanyakumari (also known as Cape Comorin), the very southern tip of India! Located at the tip is this building, a memorial to Gandhi. Also in the area on a small island off the tip is another memorial, this one to Kwami Vivekananda, and a 133 foot tall statue of Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar (both are partly visible in the upper left of the next photo).

The popular thing to do here is be on the tip at either sunrise or sunset, as both are visible from standing in the same spot. Luckily the bus dropped me off right as the sun was setting, and I saw it that night. The place was packed with tourists, but nearly all Indian tourists. After picking my way past the booths selling total junk (it seems the shops that target Indian tourists sell things that are even more worthless than those targeting western tourists), the ones selling shells, and the ones selling snacks, the energy on the beach itself felt electric. It was mostly young men, but Indians of all walks were playing in the water, laughing splashing and smiling, it was exciting to witness, but since I still had my bag, I was unable to jump in myself.

I'd met two french guys while getting off the bus, and we agreed to meet up for dinner. After finding myself a room, I went to the agreed meeting point, but was never able to find them so once again began my aimless wandering, getting a dosa for 25 rupees somewhere off the main drag and going back to my room to watch a movie on my computer. I really did look for something to do, but as far as I can tell this town has nothing.

The room I found was at Jothi Lodge, as cheap as I figured I could find (150 rupees), and it was one of the nastier rooms I've stayed in so far. When showing me the room, the guy showed me that the bed had *gasp!* five mattresses, the ultimate in comfort! All I could think to myself was “good, 5 times the places for bugs to hid....” The worst thing about the room though was the noise, the grime didn't bother me that much. Sure it had a door, but here in India many rooms have openings in the walls to allow airflow, and this room had a few. Beginning at 5am, tremendous racket of people outside began, and I wasn't really able to fall back asleep.

I checked out of the room, and went off in search of a motorbike to rent. From what I'd seen yesterday I figured it was hopeless and that I'd screwed up again, finding myself in a town with nothing to do and no way to leave under my own control. Of course I was right, and there wasn't a bike to rent in the whole town I was told by everyone I asked. Go back to Travandrum, they said, I'd find one there. Ugh, I was just there yesterday!!

Having spent 8 hours on buses the previous day, I opted for the more comfortable train, and was told of a train at 10:30 that would take me right where I needed to go. I went to the train station, and when I walked up to the counter was informed that train is canceled today! Argh!! One thing after another was just not working out for me and I was getting pretty frustrated for the first time on my entire trip.

I went to the bus stand, waited for an hour or so, and got on a bus to some random town to switch buses and eventually get back to Travandrum. As I was walking to the bus, a voice called out and said hello. His name is Jayanth and it turned out he was also headed to Travandrum. Not speaking the local language (Tamil) he was just as confused as I was, so we joined forces and headed off together. We chatted the whole ride, and he told me about his home (Bangalore), work (IT, duh!) and that he was headed to Travandrum because he was working as a sound guy for an underground metal concert called 'Sounds of Ungerground 2011' happening that night. Now I'm not a metalhead, but it all sounded like a ton of fun and I decided to tag along.

The show took place at the Purple Lounge, part of the Hotel Safari and was very close to the train and bus station. Having met Jayanth on the bus an hour or two before, I was sort of 'with the band' (haha) and joined them to hang out in the hotel in true rock and roll style, drinking, smoking and... watching cricket! Everyone was certainly interested to say hello to me, and the hospitality was first rate.

This was the first “big” metal show to happen in the state of Kerala, and included 8 bands: Gorified,
Warhorse Chained, Gutslit, Atmosfear, Anorectal Ulceration, Spiked Crib, Culminant, and Decaying Humanity, bands from Bangalore, Cochin, Mumbai and Travandrum. The show sold 170 tickets, which while not very big is a good start for such a new scene in India.

Now I've never actually been to a real metal show back home in the States or anywhere else, but it seems that out here in India they have certainly seen all the videos! The crowd moshed, head-banged and threw up the devil horns the same as any other metal show anywhere else in the world I'm sure. Naturally, I joined right in with them, having a blast. Two other westerners (both German actually) found their way to the show, and we talked a bit. One worked in town, and the other was a traveler like me.

A little taste of the show.

Because the metal scene in India and in Kerala is so new and so small, the pent up energy of the crowd was tremendous, finally having a show like this in town. The bands and audience alike seemed just thrilled to have the show and it was truly exciting that I got to be a part of it all.

Once the show ended at 11pm (I explained how in the states, most concerts don't even begin until at least 9pm!) I was invited to join the bands at Kovalam Beach where they had booked a bunch of rooms in a hotel. Of course I said yes, and we drove about 15km south to the beach. I took a much needed shower, and went to bed in what was probably the nicest room I've had on this whole trip, a room I somehow had all to myself.

I pretty much had no idea where I was or what the plan was, and in the morning as I stepped out of the room to this view of the area, wow! I joined a bunch of the guys in the rooftop restrant for breakfast, hung out with the guys a bit, and tried to figure out exactly what was going on and what I was doing here.

After a while, I followed Jayanth and a few other guys down to the beach and examined my surroundings. The beach was quite nice, and very built up for tourism. A nice surprise, it is probably the cleanest beach I've seen in India. The brown and black sand made some awesome patterns as the water moved it around, and we spent a while playing and body-surfing in the waves.

In the afternoon all the guys started to peel off heading home. Some had to catch the train, others a plane, and I spent a while chatting with the some band members and their friends before we took a taxi back to Travandrum, the guys heading to the airport to return to Bangalore, and me heading to the bus stand.

After a long string of disappointments over the past few days, running into Jayanth, meeting all his friends, going to the show and all the wonderful hospitality everyone extended to me was just want I needed. This is the kind of thing that happens on the road, assuming you are open and flexible to new experiences. I had a wonderful time and it's something that will certainly remain a highlight of my trip, once again, thanks Jayanth and everyone else who I met out there!

Because at this point I only had a few short days before I'd need to return to Kanyakumari and catch the train and because I was quite exhausted, I gave up on my idea of a motorcycle trip. Looking at the map and doing a bit of research, I decided to just go to Varkala Beach where I knew they would have scooters to rent, allowing me to have a nice place to relax and the ability to do day trips from the town. It wasn't where I'd wanted to be, but going to the beach is never bad and it looked like my best option.

I hopped on a bus from the bus stand, and like the room I'd just been, it was the nicest public bus I've seen on my trip! It was new, clean, had music, AC, lowered itself for easy entry/exit and all that jazz. It was even nicer than any of the buses in Seattle. I asked the ticket guy about it and he said it was a special bus only on this route. We talked for a while, and after an hour or two ride, I got off and he pointed me to the right bus to transfer to. On that bus I ended up talking development and economics here in India with a guy the whole ride. By about 9:30 I finally got to Varkala, found a room, ate dinner and got some much needed rest.

So that's where things stand. Next is two full days in Varkala, doing some relaxing, some reading, writing, planning and exploring. After that comes the long train ride. Well, balance has been restored as I knew it would and things look good.

Ah, also, I talked with my boss John back in Seattle and got the OK to be out another month, so once my visa expires on March 30th, I should be headed to Nepal for about a month, so long as that works for my dad who is the one taking care of my place while I'm away. I hope so, because the mountains are calling!