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. 

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!