I left Fort Cochin on Wednesday, catching a slow bus to Alleppey after numerous false starts. I found a ‘heritage home’ in Alleppey, which means a traditional Keralan wooden structure with a pitched tile roof and a well-tended green courtyard in the center, shady verandahs with comfortable chairs on all sides. I walked to the beach for the sunset and was pleasantly surprised to find only Indians – schoolboys squealing in the surf, men pulling their wives a little farther in so the bottoms of their saris got drenched.
The next morning I had arranged to take a boat through the backwaters (a system of rivers, lakes and canals that stretches almost from Kochi to Trivandrum) to reach Kollam. Not one of the fancy houseboats, of which I came to be very jealous as the day wore on, but a basic chugger that sort of looked like a fishing boat with plastic chairs piled up under a tarp. Lonely Planet says that this trip is considered far inferior to where one can go with a smaller boat and it says some tourists get bored in the middle of the 8-hour trip. All I can say is that those people probably have short attention spans. Even though it follows the major watery highway, the trip is lovely and you do see lots of activity: from fancier resorts to shanty towns built with their latrines hanging out over the water. The smaller channels are shaded by palms, and in some places you catch glimpses of neon-green rice paddies stretching on for miles; every now and then you can hear snatches of music through the trees.
The day was marred only by getting into a fight at lunchtime. We stopped at a restaurant on an island that clearly exists only for tourists. On offer was a veg curry for 50 rupees, fried fish for 35 more, and beer for 150 (by far the most expensive beer I’ve seen in India). I opted for the veg curry and a beer and paid my bill (200) promptly, but when I opened the beer it was completely flat. I showed it to the waiter, and after a moment of haggling, he gave me back my 200 and I gave him 50; that seemed to be the end of it. As I came out of the toilet to get on the boat, I noticed that the waiters were harassing the young Swedish boy who had been sitting next to me; he was owed 250 rupees change, but they weren’t going to give it to him. It soon became clear that they thought he and I were together and they had since decided that they didn’t want to refund my beer after all. My inclination would have been just to ignore them and get on the boat, but I couldn’t leave the Swedish boy standing there gaping like a retarded calf rather than arguing back. Things soon escalated to shouting. I went to fetch the boat guide, as I figured he could at least translate, but he was not sympathetic. “You open it you pay for it. If you want, I’ll leave you here and pick you up tomorrow.” This villain was obviously in cahoots with the waiters. I eventually succeeded in convincing them that the boy was not with me, and they gave him his money. In order to be let on the boat, I gave them 100 (was going to go for 50 but the 100 was the smallest bill I had) for the disgusting beer I didn’t drink.
I succeeded in putting the episode out of my mind, though I gave the guide the stink-eye every time he came past. At various points children on the banks would yell something at us that sounded like ‘ Just won pain’ which mystified me until we stopped for a few minutes and a German couple near me gave out handfuls of pens. I didn’t know what to think. It seems like any time you encourage someone to beg you do them a disservice; it’s more effective, more humanitarian to give money to organizations that educate, rather than dole out charity. But I can’t be too self-righteous here, as it’s been a while since I’ve given anything to charity – apart from my abortive attempt to volunteer in the Konkans.
I spent much of the rest of the afternoon reading my book (Slowly Down the Ganges by Eric Newby, a highly entertaining account of an English couple’s attempt to travel the length of the Ganges by boat in the 1960s) and eavesdropping on a group of French people. Man do French people like to talk! I admire them their garrulousness, especially because I don’t seem to have that much conversation in me. It may be a vestige of shyness, or maybe a feeling that I’d rather not talk unless I actually have something to say, but it means that I don’t start as many conversations as I could. Luckily Indians are inquisitive, so lots of people start conversations with me. ________________________________________________________
This morning I found a bus to Varkala, or, more accurately, I found a series of buses that got me to Varkala. At the town where I had to change a rickshaw driver tried to tell me that the bus to Varkala was not in service. I ignored him and asked the woman standing at the bus stop where I could catch it. I know I’ve said this before, but I find it astounding how much more helpful the women are than men here. I wonder if it’s because I’m a woman alone?
At Varkala Beach I trundled my bag along the path, whereupon a gentleman said he had a room for 300 rupees. I said I’d already booked a room somewhere else. I haven’t lied this much since boarding school. He told me all about the wonders of the room he had, and since I wasn’t having much luck finding the hotel I’d read about in Lonely Planet, I decided to go with him to see it, and I found that it was attractive and clean, with its own verandah in a garden. Neither of us mentioned the fictitious booked room again.
Although I’ve had some issues with Indian beach resorts – being so removed from general Indian culture – I don’t seem to feel that way about Varkala Beach. Maybe it’s because it’s out of town a bit or because it’s cleaner and more attractive than any place in Goa. Its setting is dramatically beautiful, all the restaurants and guesthouses perched on a cliff 100 steps above the beach. Apologies to people with disabilities, but I have to say I enjoy how the difficult descent to the beach keeps the package tourist away.
[I plan on staying until Sunday morning, at which point I will take the train to Aranmula, beginning two weeks of stay at the Vijnana Kala Vedi cultural center, learning Indian mural painting and classical Indian dance…]