Kanyakumari; In which it is a bit hot, but we discover that it can always be worse; Our Lady of Ransom and her captive automobile; Excitingly nautical undertakings witnessed; A visit to Vivekananda and Thiruvalluvar; I discover that I am a bad judge of character; Meeting the spacemen

It was a long, ugly night full of creepy-crawly feelings, and I slept badly. I woke early and was showered before Sheryl was awake, which is quite rare for me. The mosquitoes were unexpectedly civilized and the bedbugs never did make an appearance - or possibly the repellent that we’d doused ourselves and the bedding with did what it was supposed to do. You’d think after a night like that, that I’d be in a bad mood, but also unexpectedly, I was feeling buoyantly cheerful.

That lasted somewhere between three and four seconds after we left the hotel and the outside heat fell on us like steaming bathwater. Bathwater used by a team of sumo wrestlers after a big tournament. It was unbelievably hot. You’d think with all the wind-farms in the area that there’d be a bloody breeze, but the thick, stagnant air sat heavily. It must have been 40 degrees. There was not a cloud in the sky and, so close to the equator, the sun was directly overhead and any shadows were tiny shrivelled slices. The heat eviscerated us and left us gasping before we’d gone twenty meters down the street. I’d swear even the stones of the walls were sweating and rubbery.

The pressing business, unfortunately, was at the other end of town, at the train station. We wanted to arrange transport out of here as soon as practical. That turned out to be a pointless exercise- the ticket agent told us the trains couldn’t be booked ahead and that we should come back tomorrow just before the trains. So far it’s proven completely impossible for us to use the rail system in India so far, after hearing so many good things about it. The worst side effect, though, was suffering through the kilometre walk there and another kilometre back. I could feel the sun sucking the life out of me as we walked. Not even the presence of friendly locals - like the old beggar woman who shoved a green, oozing, gangrenous-looking arm in my face and moaned inarticulately - could make me take much notice. Between her and her friends, the heat and the noise and dirt of the town, Kanyakumari wasn’t making a much better impression by daylight than it had in the dark. Our expedition to the bus station was much more useful - we discovered that there were lots of buses leaving constantly for Trivandrum all day long, and not only the two daily that our guidebook said (I am beginning to lose faith in the book). That was good news, but after two lousy kilometres of walking, we were both exhausted by the heat. As we returned to the hotel we passed a crew patching the road, all wearing thick boots made of wrapped newspaper and tape against the searing of the molten asphalt, and realized that it could be worse - we could be tarring a damn road.

We hid from the heat in our room for a couple of hours. The power was out again so the ceiling fan wasn’t working, but it was shady and much cooler than outside. When the breeze had picked up a little we ventured out again to try and find the church of Our Lady of Ransom. The church’s huge, bone-white neo-gothic facade looms over the fishing shanties to the east of town. We both felt its pull very strongly - to be honest I think we were just desperately hungry for something clean-looking. It was impossible to miss, and yet we were both surprised to turn a corner and see it suddenly, rising out of a stretch of barren, sandy ground. It looked like a giant plaster model of a church - every outer surface had been painted the same flat, shadowless white. As we approached a car came peeling into the street and stuck itself firmly in the sand in front of the church. Spinning its wheels and spraying sand everywhere, it dug itself deeper and deeper - the driver had no idea how to get it out. Sheryl and I went over and lent a hand pushing it out of the sandpit and onto harder ground, but the driver promptly drove it right back in again and destroyed his engine with lots of smoke and a big crunching sound. Shaking our heads, we left him to it and went to have a look inside the church. It was a cavernous space all painted bright sky-blue, with neon strips above the altar. It should have looked absurd, but instead it just looked cheerful. Like the Lourdes Church in Trichy, there were no rows of pews inside, just a big empty space. Half a dozen women kneeled to pray before the altar, and their bright saris reflected in the polished floor.

We made our way back to town by way of the fishing harbour. The boats were in, the nets were all packed, and nobody was doing much of anything. Everyone was sitting in shaded doorways looking half-stunned from the heat. Three or four kids were having their heads picked over for lice, which made me doubly determined not to let the filthy pillows in our hotel room touch my head. As we walked we noticed a huge commotion by the water’s edge - a loud rhythmic shouting dissolving into random yells. A large group of men were trying to refloat a big fishing boat. With no machine power, only ropes, levers and muscles, this was a huge undertaking .The boat had barrels and other floats tied under it and was resting on skids. Ropes ran to another boat out in the harbour and to a big capstan on the breakwater which ten or twelve men were heaving around with poles, winding the rope tighter and tighter. Each big wave sparked a frenzy of levering and pulling on ropes. The boat inched slowly and unhappily into deeper water as we watched. Ten men thrashed around it, up to their waists or chests in the filthy harbour water with its scum of waste and trash, frantically trying to keep it upright and move the skids and floats away. They were making slow progress and we didn’t wait for them, but half an hour later we heard a great cheer go up and the newly-refloated boat sailed past in a triumphal procession.

Kanyakumari’s harbour has two small islands. One holds a memorial and shrine to the “wandering monk” Vivekanandra, and the other houses a 133-foot statue of the poet Thiruvalluvar. There’s a little ferry that takes you from the mainland to the shrine, from the shrine to the statue and from the statue back to the mainland. The queue to get on the ferry was long, hot and boring and I nearly fell asleep. The only thing that broke the monotony was some obnoxious French tourist berating an Indian tourist for queue-jumping. Nobody else had objected and I felt like punching the Frenchman for making Westerners look bad. I wonder if he’d noticed that no one else was bothered by it, and thought that it might have been an indication of a different value system at work. Evidently not.

The ferry ride to Vivekanandra’s island was very short - not worth sitting down, really. The shrine itself is built into a big rock outcropping. We left our shoes at the bottom (this whole taking off shoes business is getting a bit old - I begin to see the benefits of those stupid thong sandals) and went in. I’m not familiar with Vivekanandra so I’m afraid I didn’t get much out of it, but the shrine was interesting on a purely visual level, with its black and white carved walls and pillars. Disrespectful as it might be of me to suggest, though, the main attraction of the island seemed to be the big paved terrace that ringed the shrine and was open to a clean, cooling breeze off the ocean. Everyone was hanging around there enjoying the open air and looking out over the railing. There was a good view of the town, the temple and the white church, and a neat sunrise calendar - if you were trapped on the island without knowing the date, the position of the sun at dawn against the carvings of the calendar would tell you.

While I was waiting, barefoot, at loose ends and a bit uncomfortable, for Sheryl, I wandered around the terrace. I noticed I was getting a lot of stares from a group of young guys. God knows I’m used to being stared at, even before I started travelling, but some of these stares were starting to look a bit ugly, and I didn’t like the way they were nudging each other and pointing in my direction. It started to make me very edgy, in fact, and I was beginning to wonder if there was going to be trouble. It just goes to show that I’m no good at reading people, though - when one of them finally approached me he asked, very diffidently, for “one photo?” This has happened to me a few times in India, people wanting pictures of me, or Sheryl and me, or us together with them, or whatever. It’s probably just the novelty value, although from their manner I occasionally get the impression that they’ve mistaken me for someone famous. In any case I gave these guys a few photographs. At the same time, Sheryl was being mobbed by an entire extended family all wanting photos in every possible combination and permutation. I got off lightly compared to her. She was laughing at having to pose for so many pictures when she was all hot, sweaty, and decidedly at her least glamorous.

Allowing a few photos opened the floodgates and now everybody wanted pictures. I think every damn Indian tourist on that island at the time now has a picture of one of us standing with them. The funniest were a group of Punjabi guys who all laughed like they were getting away with something daringly lecherous when some of them posed for their pictures with their arm gingerly around Sheryl’s shoulders. They all work in the Indian space agency - I saw their ID cards - which is unbelievably cool. There were ten or twelve of them all on leave for the day from some work trip. Two of them, Satbir and Jaspal, invited us to stay with them in Chandigarh. I’m really looking forward to visiting the Punjab, everyone I meet from there is incredibly friendly and nice.

After all the photos the ice was definitely broken, and there was very much a festival atmosphere while we visited the second island and its statue of Thiruvalluvar and then went back to the mainland. People were all laughing and joking. All that evening in the bazaar we kept seeing familiar faces. It was a good feeling, but a little odd - they’re all just as much tourists as we are, but it somehow now feels like we know the whole everyone in town.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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