Kanyakumari to Trivandrum; Forsaking Tamil Nadu for Kerala; Keralans are mad for parades - three in 24 hours; A pilgrimage to see an old friend (which maybe makes a new friend jealous); In which foxes can fly

It hadn’t been quite as hot the night before, but the power had been out again nearly all night, and without the ceiling fan to keep them at bay, the mosquitoes had been swarming. We need to get some mosquito coils or one of those tennis-racket-shaped bug-zapper things.

Kanyakumari hadn’t made a good first (or second) impression on either of us, but the day before had ended on a good note and we agreed that it’s always good to quit while you’re ahead. So our first job of the day, we decided, was to get the hell out of town. This was made only slightly more complicated when we were checking out of the hotel by some old man demanding a tip. I’d seen him around the place, but I can’t say as I’d ever seen him actually lift a finger to do anything. The idea of tipping here in India seems to carry a different connotation than in other countries. Whereas, elsewhere, a tip is seen as some sort of acknowledgement for a job done (encouragement for performing it as well the next time) in India it seems to be seen as a reward for simply existing - like those ribbons that you got at school athletic events just for turning out. I wouldn’t normally be so rude, but the greed was so blatant in this case that I could only laugh in his face and walk out.

The bus from Kanyakumari to Trivandrum was pure hell. The conductor sold us two (differently-coloured) tickets each, for some reason. I could rationalize it as extra baggage charges for the packs. The face value of the tickets only came to Rs80. Change from our 100-rupee note? Don’t make me laugh - we never saw him again. The bus wasn’t crowded at all, but the driver was a first-rate psychopath. He weaved aggressively through traffic all over both lanes, barely missing pedestrians and oncoming vehicles, slamming rabidly all the while at the air-horn lever. I was sitting in the front seat, terrified for my life, motion-sick, with my ears ringing from the horn - for three hours. When we finally arrived in Trivandrum two consecutive lifetimes later he slewed wildly through the bus station. Since he showed no inclination to actually stop we had to jump off with our packs. As we picked ourselves up and dusted ourselves off I wished him a painful and lingering death.

I noticed a marked difference after we crossed the border from Tamil Nadu into the state of Kerala. The streets, gutters and houses were all much cleaner and better-kept in Kerala. Pride in appearances is more of a factor here - or perhaps it’s the higher relative wealth of the state making itself felt. Trivandrum, the state capital, reflects these higher standards. There’s much less trash everywhere (though still some) and none of the bad smells that go with it. The drainage and sewers are better and there are no stray cows. The people generally look happier and more prosperous. There are a lot of bookshops, too -both used and new. Kerala has the highest literacy rate of any Indian state.

And there are flags everywhere. Lots and lots of the red CITU flags (CITU is a trade-union association) and lots of communist flags. The communist party is currently in power here (and wins roughly one in two elections). I’m hardly a party to the inner workings of government here, but I’ve seen little evidence of communism at work - it seems to be as thoroughly capitalistic as the rest of India. I suspect that the party’s doctrine has become so watered-down through decades of compromises that it’s become only a socialist-flavoured union-friendly mainstream party - like the National Democratic Party in Canada. Still, having grown up being indoctrinated about the Evils of Communism, it’s a decidedly strange feeling to see the red hammer and sickle flying everywhere. The communist flags were outnumbered a hundred to one by shiny orange flags and pennants all over the sides and medians of roads, on shops and streetlamps, all shimmering and snapping in the breeze. We found out later that these are for the Nair Service Society, so rather than being political, they’re socially and religiously motivated.

We took a minute to catch our breath and then caught an autorickshaw to our hotel. Or at least, to what we thought was our hotel - a good, cheap place where we’d made a reservation the day before. It was a good feeling, the thought of being a bit more on the ball and in control enough to know where we were going. It only lasted until we arrived and found that the hotel was refusing to honour our reservation - “No rooms. No rooms.” - and kicked us out. Maybe they didn’t like the look of us, or maybe they’d given away our room to someone else, it’s impossible to know. Grinding my teeth impotently, I reached for my phone to start calling around to other hotels. The rickshaw driver demanded we go with him to another hotel he knew - for only forty more rupees (this after a tip) - but I had no interest at all in getting him a commission and told him to stuff it. That made me feel better but left us no farther ahead, and calling the hotels listed in our guidebook resulted in nothing, so we began to walk around and look. Nothing, nothing, nothing. It took us half an hour of walking, but we finally did find a nice place. At Rs465 (about CAD$11.50) a night it was the most expensive room we’d rented in the country, but we rationalized that we’d had a very cheap place for the two previous nights. Also, having no other choice is a powerful motivator, and so we took it.
Shelter taken care of, food became our main priority. I apologize for the boring entry - this dispatch seems to be an illustration of the uninspiring mechanics of travelling. Get transport, get some place to stay, get food, and only then can you do something interesting. But this is part of travelling too - the main part, I’d say. Sometimes it seems like 80% of travelling time is eaten up by these sorts of necessities. Travelling at a slower pace and spending a week or two in one place would probably make it easier, but we can’t do that - the world is a big place and there’s too much to see. In any case we ended up eating at an anonymous locals’ restaurant. The portions were small but the food was good, and very cheap - dinner for both of us was less than $2. I tried the infamous Keralan fish curry, which tasted precisely like you’d expect curried fish would taste. Sheryl’s chicken curry was the first food we’ve had in India with any hint of spice to it.

Walking back the way we’d come, we finally had a chance to look around us without being distracted by the necessities of shelter and food. People here are noticeably less friendly than in Tamil Nadu. The younger men especially are a lot ruder - lots of showy calculating stares at me and ugly penetrating looks at Sheryl. This is strange, because we’ve always heard and read about how friendly Keralans are. Maybe it’s just advertising, or maybe things will get better outside Trivandrum.

Just as we’d written off the day as a complete loss, though, the other aspect of travelling was revealed. A huge temple parade came down the street with lots of colour and noise. There were crazily-shaped spiral horns hooting; drummers; a couple of big floats with demented-looking lions wobbling their heads; Mardi-Gras-style headdresses; two ugly men heavily made up as Shiva and Parvati (we found out later that these were traditional kathakali dancers); lots of huge crepe and papier-mache constructions worn on peoples’ heads and shoulders, and sparkly fluffy spinning things the size of haystacks all twirling. This hallucinatory carnival vision was accompanied by blaring, discordantly cheerful music. It all reminded me of nothing so much as a Doctor Seuss illustration. I wonder if he spent any time in India?

I’m getting a little tired of flying by the seat of our pants, so I spent an hour in the morning planning our onward travels over a room-service breakfast (a rare indulgence for us). From Trivandrum we’ll go up the coast to Varkala, Kollam and Aleppy and then inland to the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary and Munnar. From there back to the coast to Kochi, to Guruvayur for the annual elephant race and then inland again to Ooty. That should take a couple of weeks and it doesn’t pay to tempt fate by planning too far ahead, so I’ll leave further thought until later.

Besides, an old friend was waiting for me. In the Killippalam suburb of Trivandrum there’s a chapel dedicated to Saint Jude. Now, I’m not Catholic or even religious, but Jude and I go way back. He’s the patron saint of lost causes and last chances, and so we’re more or less meant for each other. He’s helped me out of a number of scrapes over the years and he has pride of place in my personal pantheon. I wasn’t about to leave Trivandrum without paying my respects and so I dragged Sheryl all the way there through the madness of Chalai Bazaar, where anything and everything you never needed is for sale. On the way we passed another inexplicable parade - this one much smaller, with only one big hand-carved… thing… and only a dozen men in orange lungis (the skirt worn by men here in southern India) flinging water everywhere.

I tried to keep our destination a secret from Sheryl, but she guessed where we were going. It’s just as well she did, because I had to ask directions from a nosy traffic cop who gave me the third degree before answering. His directions didn’t agree with the map I’d copied from the church’s website, and so I decided to follow the map. This was a bad decision. We walked for twenty minutes before giving up and turning back. It was a nice enough neighbourhood, but the sun was beating down and Sheryl was in bad shape from the road dust. Walking back to where we’d taken the wrong turn, Sheryl wondered if maybe - Saint Jude’s aspect being what it is - the map on the website was deliberately wrong. She wasn’t far off, as it turned out - the map was upside-down, with south at the top and north at the bottom. Who does that? I personally think it was our newest patron, Ganesh, in his role as creator of obstacles, jealous of Jude’s seniority in the pantheon.

We finally found the church. It’s a nice, modern little building covered in fluttering silver streamers and pennants, with an effigy of Saint Jude in the front window. Someone had left a stick of incense burning for him, but the church was closed up tight. It figures - you cross half the world to see a guy and he’s not even home. Should have called first, I guess. We didn’t get much of a chance to look around, though, before being accosted by some local guy who came into the churchyard. He could hardly stand up. Falling all over us, he gave me a sloppy handshake. He kept lurching way too close, his face centimetres from mine. I thought he was dead drunk but there was no smell of booze on his breath at all - in fact his breath was oddly sweet. I guess he was just crazy. I tried to be polite and then ignore him but that was impossible - he kept slobbering all over us. Sheryl said afterward that he kept trying to grab her and she was quite disturbed, angry and revolted. I didn’t see any of that or I wouldn’t have been polite or forbearing. I told her she should have broken his face for him, but she said she didn’t want to cause a scene outside the church. He pretty much drove us away, I’m ashamed to say. Even when we left, he followed us. Still way too close, feet slap-slapping on the ground. I figured he’d fall behind or lose interest if we just walked faster, but he started actually trotting to keep breathing over our shoulders. Gestures and yelling had no effect, he kept trailing us like a creepy brain-damaged dog. Sheryl was starting to lose it, but he didn’t get the message until I furiously seized his shoulders, yanked him around violently to face the opposite direction and gave him a hard shove. Even then he just slapped along a block behind until we finally lost him. Sheryl was very disturbed and upset. Anger let me keep control and I tried to obliquely remind her that there are crazies everywhere. I’m very disappointed that my little pilgrimage was such a bust, though.

There was still one more reason for us to be in Trivandrum - the zoo. Our guidebook called it one of the best in India. If so, the others must be pretty sad. There’s nothing wrong with it at all, it’s just rather modest. It’s very old-fashioned in that only about half the animals are in natural enclosures. The rest are in cages with dirt or concrete floors. We spent only two or three hours there and saw everything quite thoroughly. I suppose I’m spoiled by the Toronto zoo, which can take two days or more to see properly. The very best feature was entirely natural, though. The middle of the zoo had a large, swampy pond overgrown with trees. At first glance we thought there were birds nesting in the trees, but we took a closer look and realized they were upside-down. They were bats! Hundreds of huge bats hanging from the trees in daylight! The biggest bats I’ve ever seen, with wing spreads of over a meter, reddish fuzzy bodies and pointed doglike ears and muzzles. I’ve never seen bats in daylight before. They were mostly resting, but every so often one would fly around and the sun would shine through the membranes of its wings and highlight all the bones and blood vessels. There must have been a thousand of them. We spent so long looking up at them that our necks got sore and cramped. I’m not entirely sure but I think they’re Indian Flying Foxes.

That was the best of the zoo. The worst part, unfortunately, was the people. We felt like we ought to be in one of the cages on exhibit instead of outside them. We’re used to being stared at, but this was bad - nearly every person there was openly staring at us. They wouldn’t even look away when we looked back and made eye contact, or smiled or nodded. Only a couple of people returned our smiles. Even school kids don’t smile and wave here. We felt briefly better when a group of younger girls started chatting with Sheryl, but they turned out to be from Tamil Nadu on a school trip. The young men were the worst, of course - challenging and ugly stares at me, and flatly devouring Sheryl. It was immensely unpleasant. That age group was incredibly obnoxious generally. They climbed on fences and walls, jumped into enclosures, and threw things at the animals. They would have been instantly thrown out of a zoo in any other country, but no one here batted an eye.

We both felt a bit bewildered by all this, and felt our previously quite low levels of culture-shock go up a notch or two. The heat by this time was unbelievable. We walked stunned out of the zoo grounds into the midst of yet another parade. There were an insane number of people all marching and waving orange flags. There must have been fifty thousand of them, mostly wearing orange and white. Deafening exhortations in Malayalam from loudspeakers thundered up and down the street, which was covered with orange flags and streamers. It was some sort of gigantic rally for the Nair Service Society. Keralans seem to be absolutely mad for parades - this is the third in 24 hours. All the streets were blocked off, the main road was being used as a staging area with buses disgorging loads of orange-clad people for a kilometre at least. It didn’t seem to be on the parade route but it was still lined with flags and loudspeakers. There was a frightening amount of noise everywhere, it seemed the whole town had gone crazy. There were no buses running, so we walked four kilometres in the punishing heat to find a restaurant away from a loudspeaker. We hid from the noise for the rest of the evening, and when we ventured out in the morning the thousands of orange flags had all been replaced by white ones, as if by magic.


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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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