India the First

Our friends who had been to India had lots of warnings about it. They all told us, “God it’s hot there,” or “Watch out for that Delhi Belly,” or “You’ll be overwhelmed.”

With just a touch of condescension, they wanted to look out for us unitiated folk. We also went at about the same time as all the horrific gang-rapes started. So the news wasn’t helping.

But honestly, I’ve never had an easier trip!

We experienced nothing but great cheap meals, on-time flights and trains (!), and honest cabbies.

I’m sure you can chalk up those successes to our itinerary, which kept us nestled in the tourist-friendly states of Kerala and Goa

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Maybe we would have felt different about more hectic places, like the Maximum City.

We’ll save that stress for next time.

And there will definitely be a next time, because our loafy trip through Southern India left us wanting more.

First, I’ll tell you about quaint, Communist Kerala.

Then, you’ll get to read the most boring species of travelogue — about long, event-less, lovely days on the beach in Goa.

Houseboating in Kerala

On Day 1 we flew direct from Hong Kong to Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital, which struggling foreigners like me call Trivandrum.

“Thiruvananthapuram” is the original name, and “Trivandrum” a colonial hangover. They switched it back in ’91.

We didn’t stay long. Trivandrum was a way-station for our first ride on India’s legendary rail-network.

On the way to the station, we stopped outside a temple to Ganesha (the elephant-god), where we saw a pack of men lobbing coconuts as hard as they could against a shrine.

They didn’t allow any pictures in the temple, but if you squint you can just see the coconut-smashing in the background:

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I would guess that it was all part of some offering, but I honestly don’t know.

We lingered to watch for a while, and an old-ish man came out grinning, and offered me a sliver of coconut meat. He said “Welcome to India!” as he handed it to me. Tasty!

From there we went to the train station to get tickets:

descrip Did you ever see a cuter place to get your train fixed?

Then we grabbed some hot curries in paper bags, and sucked them out during our quick train ride to Kollam.

From there we scouted around for the most important part of our Kerala business: the houseboat.

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Full disclosure: not the most environmentally conscious way to travel.

If we were better people, we would have hired a traditional boat, powered only by two guys with long bamboo poles, and our trip would have ended after 6 hours.

Our gas-guzzling journey took us up river from Kollam to Allappuzha (which white people tend to call Allepey), and it took 2 entire days.

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Still getting guilty pangs every now and then. Somehow, I’ll learn to live with myself.

These house-boats operate a little bit like luxury cruises. You pay a flat rate, and they feed you and float you. For two days, our only obligation was showing up to the table. We did a good job at that:

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Kerala cuisine comes heavy with fish, okra, and coconuts. They served it to us in unfinishable piles. We ended every meal painfully full — somehow always had room for cookies and chai, though!

When we weren’t eating, we were doing this:

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And this:

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And soaking in the riverine sites. Such as….

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These contraptions lined every part of the trip. Fisherman dip these nets into the water, and a flourescent light suspended in the middle blinks to attract tons of fish.

Minus the light, the invention dates back to the days of Genghis Khan.

And lookit this:

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Kerala is also a proudly Communist state of India.

The democratically-elected Communist Party has nothing in common with the scary dictatorships in China. Some Keralans told me that the Party’s policies helped bring Kerala to a 95% literacy rate.

We met some proud Communists, too!

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We chatted with these guys during a stop-over. They had lots of questions for me about Obama.

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Most people cross the river via simple ferry.

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Along this section of river (Indian National Waterway 3, if you’re curious), villagers hooked up loud-speakers from the palm-trees, so that they can hear prayers and songs while they work.

For an entire day, we were never out of ear-shot of some chanting. Sometimes the Muslim and Hindu prayers would overlap. Not that I was knowledgeable enough to tell the difference!

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Typical Kerala coast-line. I know — disgusting, right? On the final night, we docked our boat outside a teeny tiny village called Karumady. 

Sometimes I wondered how our captain chose  our parking places, but then I saw this:

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Of course. Just park under the enormous, crispy dead bat!

Karumady had a lot more charm than that guy.

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We got there in the middle of a big festival. Lucky us! A kindly man became an unofficial ambassador for the town.

First, he introduced us to his friend, who called himself Jimmy Carter — after the ex-President, of course. No, I’m not kidding.

Then he told us that we should stick around, because something cool was about to happen. He was right!

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During the festival, this elephant makes the rounds between a few neighboring village’s temple. Karumady was his last stop for the night.

Some guy offered to let me buy it for 40,000 Rupees, around USD$500. Not a bad price for an elephant, but AirIndia would never let me take him home.

After Karumady, we docked in Allupuzha, and that was it.  I still miss that houseboat.

Allapuzha

We had a train to catch from Allapuzha the next day, so we had to search around for a hotel. Lots of places had “Hotel” painted on them, but in Kerala, “Hotel” means “place where you go to buy a bottomless plate of curry.”

There was a lot of confusion when we went into one of these Hotels and asked for a place to sleep. The waiter shrugged and brought us some tea. Close enough.

It didn’t take too long to find a real hotel, though. We dropped off our stuff, and then I got to scratch something else off the travel bucket-list. I got to see a real Bollywood Movie!

descrip Action packed! And weirdly erotic!

Well, technically not Bollywood — those are in Hindi, and from Bombay. But it was an Indian musical dramedy with bad CGI, so it nearly counts.

Even if you can’t read Telugu, you can probably tell that movie was awful.

No biggie, because it cost about $.80 for both of us, and the crowd entertained us a lot.

They had tons of enthusiasm, especially for the moments when the leading lady came on screen, and when those dudes were throttling each other.

After the movie we ate, slept, ate, and boarded our train for Goa.

Beaching in Goa

This journey would be a long one:

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Not only that, but we thought we had bought tickets for the cushy AC1 class sleeper-cars, with privacy and air-conditioning included.

We actually got a couple of “Sleeper” class tickets, which meant we packed in shoulder-to-shoulder with a whole lotta of Keralans.

That turned out great, though. We had some adorable train buddies:

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These kids took a shine to us immediately.

Don’t ask me why, but I had an English textbook in my bag, and I gave it to these kids on the train. Their family loved that, and they wouldn’t stop buying us coffees and snacks.

Nobody in the family spoke English well, but the boys’ father explained that the smiley dude on the left was due for a religious ceremony up North. He made it sound sort of like a baptism.

Besides the company, my next favorite thing on board the train was the chow. Snack-toting men constantly rove up and down the aisles. “Coffee? Coffee!” or “Chai, chai!” or (my favorite) “Soup! Soupy! Tomato soupy!”

So once again, we went to sleep painfully full, in our 3×3 train bunks:

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And we woke up at the crack of dawn in lovely Canacona, just a short rickshaw ride away from Patnem Beach.

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I’m normally not the biggest beach person, but Patnem was perfection. It had lots of excellent restaurants, and fun bars, but it didn’t devolve into the hedonist shit-show that other beaches in Goa are famous for.

Plenty of space, and plenty of quiet (except for the crows and dogs, who made it impossible to sleep past 5:30 AM).

Best of all, though, Patnem Beach also had Alex, Andrew, and Rachelle.

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Not too long ago we had all been colleagues in slate-gray Shenzhen. That seemed like another universe, as we started our evenings on the beach with drink orders like “We’ll have 10 mojitos, please.”

For four days we ate and lazed around and night-lifed. Occasionally we did some Beach Yoga. The girls bought some saffron:

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But other than that, not a lot to report. Just loads of laid-back fun.

Rachelle left a little early so that she could see some other stuff in India. On our last full day, the remaining four of us signed up for a cooking class at Rahul’s.

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We learned how to make naan, chapaati, and 3 different curries. Here’s Rebecca in Domestic Goddess mode:

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Rebecca and Alex working together:

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And me and Andrew, in Kitchen-Pervert mode:

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We made some tasty stuff, thanks to our adult chaperone. It’s hard to fail when you have a guy like Rahul in your corner!

Not too long after that, we had to say goodbye: to our friends, to the perfect beach, to the food, to beautiful, beautiful India. I could have stayed another 2 months, easy. But we shall return!