Everything is a mad rush, a hurry to get somewhere other than where you are, and shyness or manners simply means you wait at the end of the line for whatever is left over after the crowd is gone. Of course, we knew this before coming to India. The clamour to exit the plane at Trivandrum (steward yelling at them the whole time) and the chaos of the luggage claim area just confirmed it. We elbowed our way to the front and waited for our bags.
Next we changed some money, bought a voucher for a taxi (maybe avoiding some of the overcharging we'd expect if we bartered on our own), and soon were following our taxi driver between honking taxis, rickshaws, exhaust, and chaos. We struggled to keep him in sight. We loaded the bags as a legless man dragged himself over the pavement toward us, hand outstretched. It seems we'd arrived in India.
We'd chosen a hotel a little more expensive than usual for our first few nights in India. We figured we'd ease ourselves into the place. Thankfully, the place had rooms! It wasn't anything fancy, however. This room for $20 was the equivalent to what we'd paid under $10 in the rest of our travels. We hoped this wasn't a sign of things to come!
We checked in, had a little rest, and made our way down to the main street just in time for the main heat of the day. It was likely close to 35 degrees as we made our way down the traffic congested, honking, exhaust filled street. Women covered in bright saris of every colour imaginable watched us pass with curiousity. Men openly stared. Everywhere -- for the first time in our travels -- we felt utterly foreign. We walked the whole day without seeing another tourist. People stared at our clothes, our skin, our hair. We wondered if this was what it felt like to be someone famous. Busloads of men passed and stared openly at Laura, completely covered in the sweltering heat though she was. The chaos, crowds, sounds, smells both nasty and appealing, holes in pavement, watery sewers swarming with mosquitos, men wearing white "skirts" (as Laura has dubbed them): everything is new, unusual, and demands attention.
It is like a huge, whirring, bewildering machine; drop in your coin and parts swing, slice, spin, and lights flash and head-jarring music, engines, and honking comes from everywhere. That is what its like, in a way: a massive, wonderful, bewildering machine that you stand inside, watching with childlike wonderment while also careful to avoid the parts that whiz by all around you.
I find myself starting a sentence but unable to finish it, my thoughts distracted, unable to focus for long. I now understand what we'd been told about sensory overload: there's so much to process that your brain can only deal with the most urgent stimuli. And this is just Kerala, the quiet serene and ultra developed area of the south!
It must be noted that our first two meals in India were incredible: lunch at Kalavara, a nearby restaurant with wonderful Briyani (layered rice, vegetables, meat, and sauce); and dinner at another nearby place where they took pity on us and gave us spoons (I felt like I'd been handed cutlery at a Chinese restaurant, but accepted them nonetheless). I tried to observe how the locals ate with their finigers, but didn't catch enough to try it right off. The food, however, was amazing (despite having the distinct feeling that they weren't unhappy to see us leave). We ended the day with a small victory: we made our way to the train station and bought tickets for our upcoming trip to Varkala. The woman at the counter didn't speak much English and the tickets were very cheap, so I think our first train trip will be in unreserved second class. A good initiation to rail travel, we figured, despite not being entirely clear on what we'd bought and which train to take.
Next day, we headed to Kovalam, a beach town 30 minutes away. We needed to float in the Indian ocean! Given Matt's hatred of rickshaws, taxis and the like (and the expense), we decided to take the local bus. We found the bus station and our bus in the midst of the street craziness, and hopped on. We wondered how and when we were supposed to pay, but figured that would work itself out. Sure enough it did: a man took our fifty rupees, asked for one (which we didn't have), gave us 4 rupees change, and handed us two tickets worth a total of 16 rupees. I'm no mathematician, but I know when I'm being played for a stupid tourist. I approached him, gave him 2 rupees instead of the 1 he wanted, and he dutifully handed me 5 rupees. I gently reminded him of my 50 rupees, at which point he gave me 30 in change. I was quickly realizing that math was invented for travelling in India, but also that I had won in the deal, having paid only 13 for my 16 rupee ticket. When we left the bus, I handed him the difference: I figured what I accumulate in good karma might serve me better in this place than the few rupees I'd gained.
We were directed to the beach by a rickshaw driver who, much to our incredulity, did not want to sell us anything in return. We wandered beachward in pleased confusion to find stunning blue water with large breakers crashing against fine white sand. We rented an umbrella and chair for the day and got out our books to relax. Every so often, a small crowd of Indian men would wander across the beach or would sit in small groups under palm trees, watching the half naked western women laying on the beach. The occassional family would pass, women covered head to toe with beautiful colours, and watch the ocean -- very rarely allowing the water to touch their feet. Interesting, I thought as the tourists bounced about in the crashing waves, how differently we look at something as simple as the beach.
Laura and I took our turns floating in the ocean and doing our best to avoid them crashing over our heads. Incredible to think that beyond the horizon of turquiose blue water is Africa. I let myself swallow a tiny bit of ocean water, enjoying the idea that a small amount of that ocean would be incorporated into my body in a way.
By the time the sun descended, we realized that we'd been sunburnt beneath our beach umbrella, and were very hungry. We wandered to a nearby and more developed beach for some food, on the way passing an effigy of George Bush hanging on a telephone pole; stuffed like an oversize ragdoll, it looked like a big punching bag or pinata.
We watched the sunset over the Indian ocean, the sky changing brilliant red and orange, as we sipped our beer (not so covertly placed on the floor, as alcohol isn't licensed to be served in most places except bars), and enjoyed a very expensive meal (we splurged and spent $20) of chicken curry and tandoori fish.
A short walk back to the bus stop and we were on our way back to Trivundrum (this time with exact bus fare).
Next morning we would catch the 10AM train north to Varkala, a beach community where we would stay one night before heading further north.
We arrive in Trivandrum a little tired, but also excited to be here. As we near the end of the flight from Sri Lanka, the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean turns into white-sand beaches, palm tree forests and the pink spires of a Hindu temple. India - we are finally here.
A fellow traveler once told me that India stands for: I'll Never Do India Again. I laughed at the time as it sounded so harsh, but I completely understand now what they mean. It is only week one, but I constantly fluctuate between "I am never coming back here" and "Wow - what a great country!". The traffic, the heat, the stange smells and the constant staring, make me want escape, but then I have an asolutely fantastic meal served by some of the friendliest smiles I have ever seen and I wish I could stay much longer than the four months we have planned.
So, what is it like? Well, it's freaking hot for starters. And I have to stay covered up as many women here don't expose their arms, shoulders or legs. So, I walk about in 35 degree heat wearing pants and a tank top, covered by my long-sleeved Tilley shirt, while the local women wear beautiful, cool saris. It is funny to think about our cultural differences and how men stare at me if I expose some of my neck and chest in a tank top while the local women, regardless of age, expose substantial parts of their midriff between the layers of their saris. Every so often, Matt will say "button up, they are staring", so I do up my overshirt and stifle in the heat. My first order of business, is to buy some local clothes that are cooler and more appropriate.
I suppose this is what celebrities feel like when groups of strangers stare, whisper and point, all the time. The children who stare don't bother me as I tend to stare at them too - they are so cute! Just like in Laos, we get a lot of "hello!" from the little ones. I haven't yet figured out all the various stares and their meanings. I get serious scowls from some women, but then others appear genuinely happy to see me. One woman in particular was very helpful on a train getting me a seat. The men rarely smile at me until they hear we are from Canada - that seems to make them happy, for some reason.
Then there is the head nod. We haven't worked that one out and apparently never will (according to other travelers). It is given in response to our questions whether the answer is yes, no, maybe or I don't know. The two front desk clerks at our first hotel greeted us in unison with this distinctive wavering of the head and it certainly is cheery (even if we aren't sure what it means!).
The most interesting thing to me is that I have noticed more birds in the first few days of being in India than I saw in the last three months in southeast Asia. Our first day I noticed there were many hawks in the city (red wings and a white head and body). There were about 20 of them circling an enclosed lot in the city and we were most sure that we didn't want to know what was in there! Then we saw them again at the beach along with many other birds enjoying the sea shore.