After deciding that our next stop would be Munnar (rather than continuing south to Trivandrum), Joe and I chose to seize the day and take the early bus. And maybe we’d even do something really special like buy a croissant for the journey and a few other snacks from the small hole-in-the-wall shop near the guesthouse! And maybe some coffee for Joe (it is only now that he’s found some decent black coffee in Chandigarh two weeks later)! Oh! Such great expectations!
Well, apparently nothing much happens at 6am in Kochi (and in most Indian cities). We woke to a dysfunctional hot-water heater (which was expected) and walked outside with our packs only to discover that none of the shops were open and the rickshaw needed to Ernakulum’s bus station would be twice as expensive, that is- if we able to convince a driver to break the strike and risk being caught by other union members. Fortunately, there are about five busses to Munnar from Ernakulum each day- and we were determined to only make it there by nightfall.
Don’t worry though! Joe and I have had amazing luck with transportation in India – which is such a pleasant surprise. Everything has just been too easy. People are kind, helpful and speak perfect English, busses and trains leave on time (despite every person not at the station has a different idea of what time departure actually is), and rickshaw drivers haven’t tried to take us to anywhere but predetermined places. Of course, most people also offer tours of the city or town or want to write down their names and numbers just in case we do decide to give in.
One of my other favorite parts of traveling is transportation. I know this is most likely the least favorite part for most people- there’s anxiety, stress, and fear of the unknown – especially in traveling far from home. But after a handful of great (and not so great) travel stories in New Zealand, Mali and Ladakh, I was secretly hoping that this mere 4.5-hour bus ride to Munnar would take more than the projected time. Crazy, I know.
We easily persuaded a kind (and risky) rickshaw driver in Kochi to take us to the Ernakulum train station and arrived just in time for the 8am bus. (We were told that it left at 8:30am, so it was a treat to arrive and be directly to the Munnar bus five minutes later).
(to be continued….sorry!)
Throughout the rail voyage, we were informed that our train to Ernakulum would stop at approximately 1pm, or 2pm, or 2:30pm, or 4pm., or 6pm. And ‘stops’ consisted of the train stopping without notice at unnamed stop for a maximum of seven minutes. Not five or ten minutes, but seven.
Fortunately, Ajad kept an eye out beginning at 1pm by standing at the open door between cars and his wife asked each tikken (snack) vendor how long until our arrival in Ernakulum (their stop would be four hours later). So, from 45 minutes to 30 minutes, to 15, and all of a sudden- “Oh! It’s your stop!” Ajad helped us off the train, gave us a strong handshake and wishes of safe travels and hopped back on the train just before it continued on its way.
Feeling a bit scattered and warm in the Kerala sun, Joe and I made our way down the platform and up the stairs as though we’d done this many times before (as our goal as tourists was to look as un-lost as possible despite the fact that we were or have been ‘lost’ about 80% of the time). Outside the rail station, we queued for the pre-paid taxi service (with a charge of 1 INR) and were directed towards our first auto rickshaw ride of the trip (and Joe’s first ever in India).
Ernakulum, a city of merely 1.2 million people, remained unknown to me (and us) before the train voyage. In reading the Lonely Planet South India book, I had only just considered the city to be a small place inland where we would catch a short (maybe 10 minute) taxi/rickshaw to Kochi, which is on the coast. Ernakulum is anything but a small city- and as I’m starting to realize (or re-realize)- there are people everywhere here! A city’s population of 1 million is small (Chandigarh is a ‘small’ town of 1.2 million). In the case of Ernakulum, Chandigarh, and even Mumbai- these are cities of thousands of mid-rise buildings than stretch for miles, rather than any sort of high-rise downtown skyline. (More on cities and impressions in future posts).
After about thirty minutes of maneuvering other cars, motos (with women in beautiful saris sitting side saddle with two babies behind the helmeted driver – it’s always only the driver with a helmet), and other tuk-tuks and cyclists, we crossed the first of bridges to Fort Kochi (or Cochin). The rickshaw driver informed us that the bridge was over 100 years old – but that we shouldn’t worry because the new bridge was being constructed next to it. I’m quite sure that the weight of a hundred cars swerving through no more than 20 feet of space for both directions was not intended for the old bridge. Fortunately, it seems as though enough layers of asphalt have been poured upon the wood joists to create a reinforced bridge, for now.
The state of Kerala promises white sand beaches and palm trees with traces of the Portuguese that once inhabited the fort in the last century. Winding through the streets of Mattancherry, Jew Town (yes, it really is called this), and Kochi- it is true that this smaller town holds a very different character than the hustle and bustle of modern India. A synagogue, churches, shrines, and romantic guesthouses lined the streets. And tourists. Lots of tourists!
Tourists in a good sense though. The school holidays within India seem to be from the mid-month of December to mid-January- so the ‘boardwalk’ and ‘beaches’ of Kochi were filled with families from around India. After checking into our guesthouse (Sonnetta Residency – highly recommended!), Joe and I headed out to explore. The streets were full of people and along with the temperature (a cool 75° F), a setting sun, sounds of happy children and the ocean, this was an amazing first taste of Kerala. And honestly, I was in need of a warm relaxing few days of vacation (and am still dreaming of those days from a chilly Chandigarh).
A short seawall separates a public park and streets of Kochi from a straight leading to the Arabian Sea. At sunset, people of all ages seemed to congregate to enjoy the joy of ‘winter’ with family photos on the beach and couples nuzzling while the sun set behind the Chinese fishing nets. Everyone, young and old, was eating ice cream. Rickshaws (in a small truck version) displayed beautiful sweet and savory treats like masala popcorn, curried banana chips, and fresh juices. Near the edge of the water, local fishermen show their bounty for the day (small brightly colored mangy looking fish) and offer to cook your pick with choice of sauce before your eyes. (Joe and I were very tempted but decided to not to risk it for the first few days- next time!) Just walking along the seawall for an hour made the past 27-hours worth it, and however much this may sound cheesy, the only word that can adequately describe our first few hours in Kochi is ‘JOY.’ Such a wonderful feeling for the beginning of a new year.
Our first dinner in Kochi was from a pretty ‘fancy’ place- one that neither Joe or I would have chosen if not for the reason that we were famished and craving the Kerala fish curries that we had heard so much about. I ordered a prawn curry and Joe, the fish. (Unfortunately, we still haven’t been able to decipher the type of fish- but we continued to eat the same sort for the next few days). Along with a special treat of Kingfisher beer (very similar to cold water), we relaxed under the stars in Kochi.
As I mentioned before, our research as to what to do and where to go during our 10-day trip through South India ended after booking a guesthouse in Kochi. This may be frustrating for some, but Joe and I seemed to crave spontaneity (or a slightly edited version of it) after months of schedules and studio. We vowed that we wouldn’t be rushing off to one tourist destination or another or paying thousands of rupees for ‘guided tours.’ Instead, we hopped on a ferry to Vypeen Island (3 INR) and took a rickshaw (200 INR) to Cherai Beach for a day of relaxation.
Cherai Beach is located on the northern most ocean side of Vypeen Island and boasts ‘white sand beaches’ and warm water. Basically, it’s a beach with a seawall that stretches about 15km. Being pale Seattleites though, it was wonderful. Our rickshaw dropped us at the main ‘boardwalk’ (ie a sandy five-car parking lot in front a little shop selling beach snacks, and as we approached the beach, there seemed to be a very large commotion amongst a dozen young Keralan military men. Joining the crowd, we noticed the one other foreigner, an older white lady (even more pale than us), prancing around the beach in her bikini. It was one of those moments that really makes you cringe and wonder if tourists ever do any sort of cultural research before arriving in a country that doesn’t exactly promote women (especially those in their 60s) baring their legs and bellies. (Of course, Joe and I had to record this and have a short clip of about 30 men in groups ogling at this stupid lady).
Instead of being the next show in the day’s events of ‘things not to do in India,’ we made our way up the beach about fifteen minutes to a spot nice and far from the main attraction. I wasn’t planning on going for a swim, but after wading in to my knees, it was just too tempting. The water was so warm (as though all of India had peed in it) and since it’s been years since I’ve been able to swim in a warm ocean, I waited thirty minutes to check out the situation, (the situation being the amount of people walking by or those that could see us from that point). Fortunately, the coast was clear and into the sea I went. Of course, as the time went on – more and more people starting walking by or settling nearby so I was stuck in the water. But really, who minds being stuck in 80° salt water? Not me.
As Joe and I were floating and playing in the small waves (at most 1’), a small group of adolescent boys decided to strip their classy plaid shirts and pointed white pleather shoes (all slightly resembling the Seattle hipster gone wrong) and dive in nearby. It didn’t take long for one brave soul to make his way to us, testing out his English while his friends were shouting things to him in Malayalam (the language of Kerala). Being a bit wary of his intentions, our conversation with Abel went a little something like this:
A: I’m Abel. What’s your name?
A: What’s your name?
E: Joe [This was all decided before in the case that people would give us unwanted attention].
A: Are you married? [Obviously, the part of us having the same name didn’t seem to faze him].
J+E: (nodding heads as we’re standing 15 feet apart).
A: Are you in a love marriage?
J+E: (still nodding as we’re standing 15 feet apart).
A: You’re a very nice couple. [Also obviously not phased by the fact that Joe and I are not looking very loving].
And off Abel went back to his friends.
After a few hours of swimming and reading on the beach (after being handed a large towel before getting out of the water so that I didn’t become the next spectacle), we went for a walk along the wall. By this time (2pm or so), more families and young couples had gathered at the beach, snacking, flying kites and watching the waves. Despite the sea being calm and warm, not many people were swimming and most actually just stood at the water’s edge watching the waves coming and going. We bought some cool water, masala popcorn and popsicles and joined in on the people watching. Once again, joy.
We had only intended on staying in Kochi for two nights, but after an amazing, relaxing and warm day at Cherai beach, we decided that we needed another day in the beach town. On our second day, we did a bit more trip planning and took a long walk through Kochi to Mattancherry and Jew Town along the water (and just a bit inland). The tourist and gift stalls of Kochi quickly faded and we were finally in an area where people were simply going about their daily lives, rather than trying to sell guided tours through the backwaters or take us in a rickshaw to the synagogue. We spent a few hours wandering through the towns, stopping to take photos of goats, spices, brick, laundry, bicycles in front of old brightly painted houses, door handles, building materials used in bizarre ways- most things that non-architecture students may not find as fascinating as we do.
For our last dinner in Kochi, Joe insisted upon eating at a restaurant called Dal Roti. Despite arriving after the first seating and having to wait outside with about ten other foreigners (an interesting concept that seemed to baffle the locals), we were in for a delicious treat. Joe (still on the fish kick) had a thali of fish fry curry and I tasted the paneer masala thali. MMM! We shared our table with a Swiss brother and sister and spent the meal sharing travel stories and discussing/comparing varying levels of developing countries.
As decided only the day before, our next stop would be the tea plantations of Munnar. The pictures were pretty and we wanted to cool off a little in the mountains while drinking a cup of delicious black tea. So, why not?
And really, this is where the adventure begins. With only a ticket confirmation and snacks for the road, along with my much too heavy baggage, Joe and I are off for a very long train ride to the southern state of Kerala. I am quite positive that there will be amazing stories after- especially with 30 hours in a compartment with four other strangers and the fact that honestly, we have no idea where we’re going from there!
[here you are!]
Tackling the train system here in India has been a completely foreign concept to me. My only other railway experiences lay in ‘developed’ countries- and much like my first worries of arriving in the Delhi airport last July, I envisioned the train depot to be complete madness. Without any ‘entry’ point or queues (I’m still sure that most countries don’t know the definition of this word), and the expected anxiety of long distance traveling, all in addition to the heat, the word ‘efficiency’ doesn’t exactly come to mind.
In a series of information/pre-departure meetings this past quarter, our professor (Vikram) had suggested various ways of arriving in Chandigarh. Basically, you have two choices after arriving in Delhi from an international flight- continue with a domestic flight to Chandigarh (1hr) or take the train (3hr). Most of us (studio folks) spent the last month trying to figure out if and how we should reserve train tickets. Technically, you should be able to do this online in advance, but some sites don’t take international credit cards. The Lonely Planet book suggests making reservations before- but also mentions that there is a certain tourist quota that the railway company sets aside for each train route. There are also about five classes of seatings – 1AC, 2AC, 3AC, Sleeper and unreserved. The only distinction (not explanation) that I could find to clarify the differences between 1AC and unreserved was the price- and the strong opinion by Vikram that we should only take 1st class. (Even after being a India rail ‘veteran’, I still don’t know what is considered to be 1st class- is it 1AC or all 1AC/2AC/3AC).
Basically, Joe and I were saved from all of this hassle of online booking and choosing class/seats by the generosity of Rushabh and Dilip. A few days before leaving for Mumbai, Amita and I called to confirm the time and day that we would be arriving and Rushabh offered to make his way to the train station in Mumbai to make our reservations for us. The best seats he could get for us were for the 26th (not the 25th as originally planned- which worked out best after our flights were rerouted from Heathrow) and 3AC for seats 1 and 4. Okay, just smile and nod. Sounds great!
Our train was scheduled for 11:40am on Sunday- and after a relaxing morning of upma eating, tea drinking, and political speaking with Dilip, we were on our way (delicious food from Neeta and all). Fortunately, the traffic was not too horrible; we only came across a few traffic jams instead of a constant gridlock (I’m so curious to see what Mumbai is like during the week). The day before on our tour of the city, Rushabh and Dilip had shown us the central train station which probably dates to the 1920s or 30s, and Joe and I just assumed that this is where we would be going to catch our bus to Ernakulum (in the state of Kerala). We quickly realized that this was not the case as we passed through more construction and parked halfway on a pile of rubble and trash under an overpass within sight of a rail station. We unloaded the car, paid a man in a tan shirt (which seems to be the uniform of anyone working in transport- rickshaw drivers, taxi drivers, bus drivers) and pushed through the crowds across the tracks and up onto the platform. Joe and I followed Rushabh and Dilip like small children through even larger throngs of people (and a very large shipment of fish into the luggage compartment), stopping at a car and stepping inside- and into a hallway on the left. Our seats were the first on the left (1 and 4 being window seats).
Finally, this system of 3AC made sense! This car was separated into about 10 berths, each with two long benches facing each other (with space for 3 people on each side). During the day (or when people decided to sit up and chat, eat, or snooze), three people are sitting on seat 1 (or 4)’s bed for the night. The other four beds fold down from the wall on either side. Thus- this explains the ‘3’ in 3AC : 3 people/3 beds on one short wall. Fortunately, the AC just stands for the subtle hint of air conditioning and a fan (and a window fogged from condensation). It was actually quite comfortable, and not nearly as hectic once we sat down and pushed and kicked our bags under the seats. Rushabh and Dilip relaxed with us in the cool calm car for about twenty minutes and hopped off just in time for the train to get on its way (without any sort of warning, of course).
We had been warned before about train travel- and even after successfully situating ourselves and tucking our smaller bags with computers, etc between us and the window, I still envisioned some little kid sneaking his little fingers into my purse to steal my passport or my drawing scale while I was sleeping.
Dilip had insisted that we put our bags under our heads when we slept (which of course we did and had neckaches after), but fortunately – after an hour without bunkmates, a very nice family boarded the train and continued on the train adventure with us. It took a bit of time for us all to warm up to each other (and we’re sure that they were all laughing hysterically at us numerous times), but in the long run (after 24 hours), we were the best of friends. Ajad, his wife, and two daughters (16 and 11) were going to Trivendrum for the winter holiday from school. They all spoke impeccable English and gave us hints on what treats (from Neeta) to eat and when. Ajad also insisted on buying Joe three cups of chai and one cup of coffee and sharing their plates with us. I had left a bit of stollen with Neeta and Dilip, but we shared the other half of our delicious Christmas treat with Ajad and their family (thanks Juliana!). They loved it- and continued to tease within their own family how much they all loved to eat.
The 27-hour train ride seemed to pass relatively quickly and was relatively comfortable. Between chai, standing halfway out the door (videos to come), avoiding the toilet, and watching the scenery change from brown and over-populated to lush, green fields and brightly colored houses. Looking out the door (because of the foggy window) was an amazing experience (and I’m sure not one that overly cautious would want to hear)- liberating in the sense that the sticky air was whipping through my hair and dust coating my face and arms. There is absolutely no way that this would be allowed in America (which of course makes it even better). It’s times like this where I’d like to collect little pieces of my days (or daydreams) into a movie of life (ie. the credits rolling as you look back at the speeding train passing small villages, people waving to no one in particular, and the sound of the wheels running over the rail ties in a dud-dunk, dud-dunk).