India August 2015
As I stepped out the Cochin International airport I was consumed by two distinct emotions. The first was nostalgia. The air was thick and humid and smelt of warm Indian spices. I haven’t experienced air like that since Malaysia eight years ago and as soon as it reached my skin and nostrils it took me right back to those first happy travels. The second emotion that overcame me was fear. Not a strong, urgent fear but a sort of underlying trepidation. Why had I come here? What business did I have being half way across the world on my own in a strange country I knew virtually nothing about? The airport exit was heaving. Bodies crammed tightly together like sardines in a tin, waiting to greet their friends, jostling, barging and sweating. Where the hell was I supposed to go and what was I going to do once I got there? I was exhausted after a long journey with no sleep and little food and longed to be in the comfort and safety of my little world back home. Amongst the chaos I spotted a man holding up a piece of paper with the words of salvation on: MIA ROBEY. I was no longer a faceless foreigner in the crowds. I was a someone. I was a someone who had a place to go and a way to get there. Relief. The taxi ride was long and largely uneventful. The driver was friendly and chatty but I was exhausted and with only food and sleep on my mind I didn’t offer much conversation back in return. The blurred world outside the car with dual. The landscape was beautiful: lush green trees and foliage fat with the recent monsoon rains. Interspersed with the greenery however were building sites, litter strewn streets and honking, swerving traffic. The natural beauty made me hopeful and excited but the urban chaos tempered my excitement with a tinge of regret for my choice of destination.
My arrival at Greenwoods Bethlehem in Fort Cochin dispelled my fear and apprehension completely. The homestay was absolutely beautiful and it’s owners, Ashley and Sheeba, with their warm smiles and helpful, friendly nature made me feel right at home. Now my only regret was that I hadn’t booked to stay there longer! The front courtyard spilled over with exotic plants and trees and the air was filled with the songs of birds and cicadas. In the evenings the call for prayer met with the bird song, creating a perfect soundtrack to Kerala.
After a well needed nap I decided to eliminate any remaining vestiges of anxiety I had by braving the world outside and heading for a walk into town. It was only a ten minute walk into the centre of Fort Cochin, if you can call it a centre. The town is small and so the centre consists of just a few small roads that seem to cater mainly for tourists. The locals gathered at the sea front around a collection of stalls and a children’s playground. A few old traditional Chinese fishing nets bordered the sea but, the area being rather bustling and with the view of building works in the background, they did not create the romantic image that I had been expecting.
Having successfully driven out any remaining fear with my enjoyable wander into town and back, that evening I ventured out again in search of dinner. The guide books advise against lone females being out after dark and so with that in mind I headed out early, at about six o’clock. I dined at the well recommended Dal Roti, a simple, clean restaurant with a friendly owner and comprehensive menu. I found the food to be tasty but nothing mind blowing by any standards. I enjoyed a chat with Christina, an Italian tourist, over dinner and left feeling satisfied that I had indeed made the right decision in coming out to India.
Backwater boat tour:
The following day I was up early for a boat tour of the backwaters. The morning was spent on an old rice boat exploring the wide river and the afternoon on wooden canoes going down the smaller, winding waterways. The river in the morning was beautifully tranquil and picturesque with a back drop of palm-fringed river banks and hundreds of thousands of tiny, pink, under-water flowers. The only thing that tainted the experience was the guide who was rather attention seeking and determined to draw our attentions away from the stunning scenery and towards himself instead. In the afternoon we had a much quieter and overall more pleasant guide who let us enjoy the boat ride in peace. I was seated at the very front of the boat and so was gifted with the best views. The tiny tributaries, with their overhead trees and plant life created a very pretty image but unfortunately this was also tainted, This time it was litter that spoiled the perfection. We drifted past occasional food packets, sweet wrapper and dirty plastic bags which inevitably blemished the overall experience somewhat. I couldn’t help myself from comparing the boat ride to one I had taken in Tasik Chini, Malaysia, serveral years ago which had been absolutely sensational and so perhaps I had too high a bar set.
The bet part of the day was lunch. As usual I am governed by my stomach and the success or failure of any experience is often decided by the food. It was a simple banana leaf curry served inside a small unlit room, seated on wooden benches and yet it was one of the most enjoyable meals I have had. What I enjoyed was the simplicity of it. It wasn’t dressed up to be anything more than what it was, a home cooked meal, and for that reason I could enjoy the experience without any expectations or pretensions.
It was time, regrettably, to leave Fort Cochin. I had been prepared to take a bus but a German couple I had met on the boat tour were keen to share a taxi and for the price of just 1250 RS, (about £14), the convenience and comfort of a taxi was too tempting to turn down. So I was picked up at 7am and arrived in my homestay in the cool hills of Munnar at 1pm. The taxi journey was pretty uneventful, one of the blessings and curses of taking a straight forward taxi as opposed to a public bus.
Munnar is just what you would expect from an Indian plantation in the highlands. Cool mountain air and luscious greens as far as the eye can see. The homestay is closed by hills covered in thick blankets of forest and dotted here and there with the occasional dwelling. The air was dense with the sound of birdsong, crickets and croaking frogs. Now and then a light rain played music on the metal roof. Intermingled with this song of nature were the sounds of cars and tuktuks clattering past, beeping their horns at one another and trundling off into the distance. It’s a wonderfully relaxing place, almost too relaxing. After being on the go so much in the week leading up to Munnar, what with travelling from Spain to London, London to Doha, Doha to Cochin etc, I found it somewhat of an effort to take it down a gear and simply enjoy the stillness. There was also this lingering tension in the back of my mind about where to go next and how to get there. I really did need those few days in Munnar to unwind and force myself to let go a little.
As relaxing and lovely as Munnar is, throughout my stay I couldn’t help again comparing it to Malaysia. This time it was the Cameron Highlands that I was comparing India to. I know that’s it’s unfair to compare two places and consequently see the faults with one, but the landscape of the two places is so similar that I couldn’t help but judge Munnar against the Cameron Highlands. Whilst both places are undoubtedly beautiful, the highlands of Malaysia felt much more unspoilt. Whilst Malaysians seemed to recognise the natural beauty of their landscape and therefore protect it, recognising it’s lure to tourists, Indians, also recognising the potential tourist trade, had stuffed their picturesque landscape with hotels and business and, consequently, litter and pollution. More and more it was becoming apparent just what a land of contradictions and duality India is. Tranquillity and noise; beauty and ugliness; nature and pollution; poverty and greed; friendliness and indifference; tradition and modernity.
Feeling a little downbeat after noticing how the landscape was being marred by greed, I was in need of something to lift my spirits. That something came in the form of a thunder storm. The power of nature rarely fails to restore my mood and so I sat outside and enjoyed the heavy monsoon rains. The torrential downpour and roaring thunder drowned out all the jarring sounds of passing traffic leaving nothing but nature in it’s place.
For my final couple of days in Munnar I was the only guest and while this meant that the family often didn’t bother to cook, leaving me hungry, one benefit was that when they did provide food I was able to dine with the family. These were truly lovely meals. Not only was the food home-cooked and delicious but I was able to chat with the family, helping the youngest son with his homework and learning about the real India as opposed to getting to know a bunch of other tourists. In fact the family really made my experience in Munnar memorable and I will always look back on my time there is fondness.
Unfortunately I have very few good memories of Alleppy and so you’ll have to excuse me for missing out quite a lot of my experiences there. I could go into details but I’d hate to have a big negative rant and I’m sure you wouldn’t like to read it either. What I will say is that my bad experiences were all down to the guest house I was staying in and the people running it. I found the place in Lonely Planet’s guide to India and had been really looking forward to what the guide described as a “backpacker favourite”. What I found was a scandalously filthy, badly run hostel in a severe state of disrepair, (and I don’t exactly stay in five star accommodation usually so it’s quite a lot for me to complain about a hostel). Right, that’s all the negativity you are getting about my time in Alleppy and I’m only telling you this much so that you know not to stay at Johnson’s.
One of the things I came to Alleppy for was the famous Snake Boat Race that takes place annually. The owner of my hostel, Johnson himself, had organised three boats of the river with good views of the race and I spent an enjoyable day on them watching the huge boats, some with up to eighty rowers, race each other down the river in front of us. I’d made friends with a young French couple, Kyla and Theau, who were staying in the Hostel and after the race we all went into town for dinner together. This was particularly nice as I’d been avoiding going out after dark being a woman on my own so it was nice to be able to venture out after seven o’clock for a change. In fact if it hadn’t have been for Kyla and Theau I would have left Alleppy with a very bitter taste in my mouth as my experience there otherwise hadn’t been overly pleasant.
After my experience in Alleppy the ashram was a welcome change. It’s one of the most relaxing and calm places I’ve ever been and with shops, an ATM, taxi service, food, internet access and a doctors all on site it’s a very safe and easy life. I was staying in a four person dorm on the ninth floor but was lucky enough to have the room to myself for all bar one night. The views from up there were amazing – the soft pink ashram flanked by palm trees on one side and the sea on the other. I spent the majority of my time there sitting and reading. Although really what I’d actually do is sit down to read and end up putting my book aside in favour of people watching. There were a huge array of different types people in the ashram but the one thing that united them all was a look of calm serenity on their faces. I bumped in a couple I’d met at Munnar and was interested to hear that they had been in the ashram for six days already and had no plans to leave any time soon. When I’d met them previously they had been very much in a rush to get moving and fit as much into their trip as possible but the ashram had obviously had a marked effect on them. I can see how the ashram would be a very safe and easy place for foreigners to stay. The India outside the ashram walls is a bustling and confused and intense world and for some it must get too much. Personally I like the craziness of India and as much as I enjoyed the ashram I think I would find it too cocooned to spend any longer there.
Amritapuri is known as the hugging mother. She is a guru whose healing energy and love is handed out to people in the form of hugs. I’d heard about her years ago and so when I discovered her ashram was in Kerala I was keen to come and find out more. I wasn’t sure whether Amma was going to be at the ashram during my stay but as luck would have it she was there for the entire time. I’d sat in the main hall watching Amma handing out hugs, or Darshan, on stage and finally it was my turn. I queued for what was possibly ninety minutes but time passed quickly as I sat fascinated by all the people around me. When I finally got up onto the stage I knelt down and then my head was gently pushed down onto her breast and she held me. It’s a strange sensation that’s difficult to describe. I didn’t feel like anything miraculous had happened by any means but I certainly felt something and when I allowed myself to relax I felt my eyes begin to well-up a little. But then all too quickly it was over and I was being moved away to make way for the next person. Before I left she pressed a small package or chocolate and holy ash into my palm and then I was up and away. I urge anyone who has the opportunity to give it a go and to remain open to the possibilities. I’m very much a sceptic with a lot of these things but I certainly felt something and I can easily see why some people burst into tears upon contact with Amma and find it hard to tear themselves away. People hold a lot of distress and anguish inside and in this modern age of coolness and distance between people a moment of physical contact with someone who won’t judge you is a rare thing to come by. Amma is perhaps nothing more than an outlet for people’s repressed emotions but that doesn’t make what she does any less valid or genuine.
Back to Fort Cochin and back home:
I spent an enjoyable three days in the ashram, making the most of the relaxing environment and convenience of everything around me, but when the time came to depart I felt happy. Yes, the ashram was safe but there is no excitement in ‘safe’ and I was looking forward to a bit of excitement again. I arrived back at Fort Cochin and back to the warm embrace of Greenwoods Bethlehem. This is where I felt the most happy in India, perhaps partly being that it is both the place I first arrived at in India and the place from where I will return home. I enjoyed two nights relaxing in the peaceful little town, buying gifts and eating good food before finally saying my farewells to India and returning home.
India is a place that I have always wanted to go to but put off going for so long as I’d heard so many horror stories. How wrong I was to put it off. I absolutely love India and cannot wait to go back again and see more of it. I met so many absolutely lovely people and had an incredible time. Two of the times I have been solo travelling I was told horror stories before I went and both times I had amazing experiences. I’ve learnt to always take advice from people who have my best interests at heart but also to take all advice with a pinch of salt as it might not always be so correct and could even prevent you from taking part in life-changing events if you allow it.