donderdag 21 januari 2016

What They Don't Tell You About... Kanyakumari

Kanyakumari is the end. Beyond the coastline there are a few rocks, but that is really it. Done. India doesn't go further south. You did it, you managed, and at the point where three seas meet and where - apparently -you can see the sun set and the moon rise simultaneously, you do actually feel a sense of accomplishment. Maybe it's my affection for the country, combined with a deep desire to do something meaningful in my life, but standing on the edge of India is special.

When the sense of accomplishment has ebbed away and you're done looking at the waves that are bashing the coast driving by ferocious winds, there's not that much about Kanyakumari that's worth your while. The town (23.000 souls) is small, with most of the activity centered at the coastline, which can be 'explored' in a day or so. It is a popular destination for Indians on holiday as well as those on a pilgrimage, which means that buildings are either hotels/lodges, tourist shops, more tourist shops, a travel agency and of course the occasional temple. Most noticeable in the latter category is the Vivekanada Memorial, 400 meter offshore. Literally drones and drones of people flock to the place where Swami Vivekanada once found his inner peace. Reason enough for me to admire Mr. Vivekanada's temple from a quiet, 400 meter distance. I'm sure he'd give his blessing.

Though quiet is not always an adequate description. The thousands of (inter)national tourists and pilgrims that come to Kanyakumari, also attract beggars, touts and my favorite: fortune telling parrots and their in-touch-with-your-inner-parrot interpreters. I'm not sure where the parrot would get his vision from and how these would be interpreted, but the people selling their services were so convinced of the parrot's abilities, they would become quite insistent in their desire to help you achieve future succes, avoid oncoming doom. Though my curiosity was piqued, I didn't feel like laying down 200 rupees (less than 3 euro) and support this sham, just to see how far someone would go to try to fool me. Nah, not me, not today.

Something else I failed to do, was getting a tattoo at one of the various pop-up, semi-improvised tattoo 'shops'. Basically there was a blanket, some wooden stamps with your figure of choice (including tribal motives!) and a guy with a simple tattooing machine. He'd stamp you with the figure, follow the lines with the needle and within minutes, you're scarred for life. It seemed a fairly popular souvenir though, judging from the number of tattooists. Even boys, not much older than 13, 14 where sitting down for these skilled artisans to do their worst.

Well, maybe I'm being unfair to the ones setting the tattoos. They're only trying to make money, based on an apparent need to get inked in Kanyakumari. They were not the only ones on blankets trying to make a living. Others, seemed even poorer and more desperate. If you see the people with disheveled hair, torn clothes and half to naked children running around them trying to sell all kinds of beads and necklaces, you know you can do worse than being a tattooist.

Maybe I haven't done Kanyakumari justice with just a day and a half, but I'm glad I didn't spent the usual 3-days-a-place. It was worth it for the 'I did it!', but Madurai awaits!

Trivandrum Tales: The Thiruvananthapuram Terror

Though the Keralian capital if officially called Thiruvananthapuram, I'll stick to the more convenient and pronounceable Trivandrum, the former British name and still it's unofficial one. Usually city names get shorter, easier to pronounce (like my hometown 's-Gravenhage to Den Haag), but here other factors play a role in the name changes. It's not about shorter or convenience (obviously), but about authenticity or maybe more accurately, nationalism. And though it's understandable a government opts for the original name rather than the imposed one, does it really need to be such a tricky one? Kochi to Cochin, yes. Aleppey to Alappuzha, hmm yes. From Trivandrum to Thiruvananthapuram, oh hell no! But what can you do...

Still, the city itself is worthy of such a majestic name as Thiruvananthapuram. The first thing you notice when wandering around the city, is that it's alive. While both Cochin and Alappuzha are busy bustling Indian towns, Trivandrum's pulse is that of a modern city heading towards the future. Not that there are hypermodern busses driving around or futuristic buildings, nothing like that. The pulse is its people. There are students heading towards classes, blue and white collar workers on their way to work, there are traffic lights and traffic rules that are actually obeyed! Well, sort of (more about that later).

At the same time, with its Shri Padmanabhaswamy Temple and the neo-Keralan architecture that dots the city, Trivandrum is also in touch with its ancient and not so ancient history. Minor flaw in this picture perfect is that the temple is only accessible to Hindus and most of the heritage buildings are in a state of seemingly perpetual decay, even though they're still in use as University buildings.

Despite being the capital of the state, Kerala's tourist department does not do much active promotion for the city. Rather, they focus on the backwaters (Cochin and Alappuzha) and the beaches such as those at Varkala and Kovalam, both not too far from Trivandrum. And in a way, it makes sense. Other than the - Hindu only - Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple, the city does not boast any major sites, nor is it very tourist orientated. Enjoying Trivandrum, is enjoying the little things. The hustle and bustle of a city market, the local food, the history hidden in a little museum, housed in - what seems to be - a colonial pigeon palace.

The Napier museum, housed in the characteristic building described earlier and depicted at the beginning, is not your average well organized museum. It's more like a display of a British collector's frenzy of Indian artifacts. The wooden and bronze statues of Indian gods and goddesses, marble Buddha and countless gorgeous Ivory items were more than worth the 10 rupee (14 eurocent) entry.

The same cannot be said of the Trivandrum zoo unfortunately. While at 20 rupee it's probably one of the world's cheapest museums, it also fails to deliver on most of what you expect from a zoo. Though it has some nice forest parts, the animals are not the luckiest. Birds are kept in dark cages, barely visible through the triple bars. Giraffes seemed to have already given up at all and left, while the only visible lion was somewhere knocked out. The hippo seemed to be doing fairly well, being almost fully submerged in their baths, preferring the water temperature to the air one of 34 celcius.

Highlight but at the same time the low point were the tigers. While they do have a fairly big enclosure with quite some green, only one of them was enjoying it at the time of my visit. All the others were locked up in small cages, little more than cells. And though it was impressive to see these majestic animals at 1,5 meters with just a single row of bars separating you from them, the constant back and forth and back and forth pacing of some of them made me fear for their mental health. This does not strike me as the best way to threat your national animal. As Yann Martel based the animals in his book 'Life of Pi' on the ones in this book, maybe he can have them share in his prosperity. Just a thought Yann.

So regarding the rules. There is one rule that is set for all, rickshaw drivers in India, but one that I have never seen enforced in the four months I've spent in this country: using the meter. It's a classic. As rickshaw drivers can make more money negotiating a price compared to using the meter (especially with tourist, Indian or foreign), rickshaw drivers from Delhi to Varanasi and from Amritsar to Udaipur will tell you the meter is broken. Even a brand new rickshaw will not have a working meter. It actually led me to believe, they were produced as dysfunctional, just for show items.

But in Trivandrum they miraculously work. Most times. Some still negotiate (but turn on the meter for the police), others give an approximate price that's just higher than what the meter will show, but if you want you can always fine one that will use the meter. It was such a surprise the first time, I kept staring at the meter for most of the ride and took a dozen pictures. Good job, government of Kerala, Trivandrum, whoever made this happen.

Articles from Alappuzha or How To Spell Venice With An A

Alappuzha is the gateway to the backwaters of Kerala, the much heralded 900km maze of narrow waterways through the lush green, paddy fields and the occasional village. Its canals has reportedly earned it the nickname 'Venice of the East', which is at best misleading; a plain old marketing trick, probably more aimed the Indian - who're mostly only vaguely familiar with the place - than Europeans, who should know better than to think there's more than one Venice. Restaurants and hotels however, gladly make use of the reference, as you can find a 'Venice' something on every corner.

While Alappuzha feels a lot less touristy than Cochin and more like a regular Indian town, it's not the most interesting place in the country. The main market area is filled with stores selling (gold) jewelry, clothing (men OR combination of child/women) and your usual drinks and food stalls, which makes it interesting enough for a stroll or two. It does have one thing that I missed in Cochin: an Indian Coffee House!

Having lunch in one of the Indian Coffee Houses is an experience in itself and one of my favorites from the last journey. The waiters in their white, formal attire are rude, it's overcrowded during lunch hours and the menu doesn't differ much from Uttar Pradesh to Kerala.. But keeping those things in mind it has one big advantage: it always lives up to expectations. They're even consistent in the way the waiters smack your coffee (standard with milk and loads of sugar) on the table, spilling some of your cream coloured Indian Red Bull. Oh yes, and it's all dirt cheap. The coffee is 12 cents, while the most expensive snack on the menu is barely 1 euro, in which case you've selected the mutton omelet (and really, why would you do that?). Usually I leave a tip that's half bill, just to show some appreciation, even if it's just one way.

Although it hasn't rained here in a long time, umbrellas are a widely popular item in Alappuzha. The city even boast a couple of stores, dedicated solely to selling umbrellas of different sizes and in a great multitude of different colour combinations. There are even umbrella hats, which look halfway between pretty cool and completely ridiculous. As it rarely rains (monsoon excluded!) the majority of the umbrellas serve to protect people from the sun, which is scorchingly hot even in midwinter. Even in the shade, the afternoon temperature reaches a whopping 33 degrees celcius. And even though I was tempted, it seemed more like a thing for women and old men, not suited to the laid back non-dreadlock-but-keeping-it-cool-anyway me.

So, backwaters! The reasons why I'm here and the reasons why (ten) thousand - Indians and non-Indians - flock here to this far distant long lost not-really-family-but-we-tolerate-you-anyway cousin of Venice. While those with the budget, the time and the company opt for the houseboat experience - spending the night on the waters in an old rice barge, now floating apartment - I explored the backwaters from a paddle driven canoe, which is as or even more relaxing than it sounds. Especially compared to the loud motorized boats, which rush past the endless side streams and small waterways, where the small life magic is hidden. They'd miss the 'duck shepherd' - yes someone who's herding ducks - who's guiding his quacking flock to wherever they need to go to do whatever they need to do. Oddly, I haven't seen duck on the menu anywhere, nor is duck part of the Indian menu. Maybe someone should tell him. Seeing how some places are run, business models do not seem to be the strong point of most Indian entrepreneurs.

The 'ice cream man' seemed to be the exception. Roaming the backwaters with his simple boat and small cooling box, he seemed to know exactly where and when to ring his bell. He wouldn't even have time to properly arrive at the house and the kids where already waiting, hauling they parents along, thereby assuring this man of an income.

Regarding income, it seems that everybody in this region is either involved in tourism, fishing or rice production. And the last two are even often combined. As the backwaters are connected to the sea and below sea level, freshwater was originally only available during and for a while after the monsoon months, meaning that rice production was limited. Therefore next to dozens of rice paddies, the area is also dotted with shrimp farms, as these creatures welcome the salty sea water more than the more selective rice plants. However, as rice is more profitable than shrimps, dams have been built to (partly) control the flow of water. Meaning that the once natural process is now manually controlled. Take that mother nature!

The area still looks beautiful and serene though. There's something calming about rice paddies and palm trees all around you.

Talking about calming... To close, a little confession. Even though I've grown used and sometimes are quite fond of Indian music, it can be such a relief to your ears to just listen to your own (Western) music. It's like eating pasta for a slightly upset stomach. You're bombarded with so many sights, smells and sounds that unfamiliar to your senses that it can do a world of good to expose yourself to something you know. Just some 4/4, non-tabla, sitar free, your thousand in a dozen scale progression, no morale, non high pitched female jabbering music.

vrijdag 15 januari 2016

Cochin Calling: Smile, Wave & Happy New Year

Avoiding the major cosmopolitan cities of the South (Chennai, Bangalore) Kochi or Cochin is a more relaxed the place to start a South Indian journey. Judging from names as 'The Dutch Cemetery' and 'The Dutch Palace', I'm not the first of my people to think so.

In addition to my ancestors (±1660-1814), Kochi also bears the marks of other fellow European 'traders', the Portuguese (1500-1650) and of course the Britishers (1815-Independence). But Chinese fishing nets, mosques and even a 400 old synagogue show that Kochi actually belonged to everyone who had something that someone else wanted. These days Kochi - the island just off the coast - belongs mainly to tourism, with the mainland Ernakulam region as its more regular Indian cosmopolitan counterpart.

If you're expecting to see cows roaming the streets, creating their holy chaos and even holier dung, Kochi will be a terrible disappointment. There as some goats, a few stray dogs, but other than that Kochi is fairly orderly and relatively clean, though don't expect a garbage free beach. Being an island, traffic is also within limits, making it fairly easy to move around. If a place is not a 'Homestay' it's a restaurant and the place has some decent restaurant, so getting food is not an issue either. All in all, a fine place to start!

It's nothing new, but - at the least on the first day - it still surprises me a bit. How the tuktuk sneaks up on you, startle you with their honk and then go 'taxxxxi siiir?' or worse, the 'heelooow siir, howayou? Where you from?' which basically means the same thing. But they are relatively easy dissuaded, compared to some northern tourist cities. Just one 'no, thank you' with a dismissive wave of the hand does the trick, making simply walking around town a lot easier.

As I arrived on the 30th, my second day was already the last day of the year, which means time for celebrations! And Indians love celebrations. For all three days I've been there, the town was buzzing with Christmas/New Year festivities. Including some pretty remarkable ones...

For a land in which homosexuality is forbidden, it was really quite surprising to see Drag Queens parading openly and full attire in the crowds around the new year festivities. Even more surprising was the love shown to them by some Indian guys, who were all over them, while their fellow countrymen and women just looked either surprised or horrified/disgusted. Maybe it is a 'go crazy, it's the last day of the year thing'? Both the drags and the guys around them seemed to have a good time, so I guess it's cool.

One thing they did like to go crazy during the last day of the year were dolls or more specifically, straw dolls dressed as Santa. While there was a giant cowboy doll burning at the beach, the streets of Kochi were dotted with burning Santa's who were not really Santa's - despite the beard and the red/white clothing - but the year 2015. While I'm not sure what 2015 did to deserve such an ending, I know that people were very much looking forward to the new year.

If you ever find yourself on a cycling tour around Cochin on New Year's Day, you'll know what I'm talking about. Quite regularly people - and especially kids - wave when you as a tourist pass by, especially if you enter the villages outside the main town. Here that incentive to wave was reinforced by a general desire to wish us a 'happy new year'. And so every 500 meters or so there was a exchange of wishes for happiness in and for 2016.

And if you're in need for some spiritual closure for the end of the year/beginning of the new one, then Kochi is a good place to be. Especially if you're Christian. At least on Fort Kochi, Churches vastly outnumber Hindu temples (at least 'visually') and quite a few of them seem brand new, with a modern (glass) look. And most of them seem to give as much importance to the New Year's Eve and day mass as they would do a Christmas one. Of course it's a bit indianized, it's all a bit more kitsch with bright multicolor lights and the mass being in the open in December.

Despite some local adoptions, Christianity seems to practiced in a mostly familiar way. If anything Jezus and Mary seems whiter here, which may also be related to Indian beauty standards, which favour lighter skin. Of course there are some odd cases, such as a statue depicting Jesus on a horse , waving his sword like he's leading a charge. Other than that he's sometimes dressed in local attire, which could even be true as the man - after the whole ordeal with the cross - spent his remaining years in India. That's one option anyway.

Travel tips:
- Prepaid taxi from the airport to Fort Kochi are rs1200, which is a decent price for the 50km trip, especially after a 10 hour flight.
- Fort Kochi to Allepey. There's a bright orange KURTC AC Volvo bus leaving from Fort Cochin to Alappuzha around 8.15 am (3hr, rs128), which is probably the best option by road. No booking in advance, just show up on time. Alternatively you can book a (house)boat, I've heard Waltons in Fort Kochi is happy to help you arrange that.

Prologue: There (But Mainly Back Again) - Stories from the South

Should you visit a country twice? Maybe. Should you visit a country three times? Maybe maybe. Should you do it three times in 5 years? Probably not.

There's so many countries to go, things to see, money to waste, why go again to 'the same place'? Yes. Why?

First there's a bunch of practical reasons, among them the greatest thing since sliced peppers: a visa on arrival program that actually works really really well! Good job India! You can just apply online for E-Tourist Visa (eTV), upload a picture/passport scan, pay, bring the confirmation paper, do a quick fingerprint scan, get the stamp and walk straight out (even cutting the line to exit!)

Then it's a story of timing, time and resources. All practical reasons. But you don't sit for nine hours in a plane, endure the scorching heat, the madness and the 'dangers' for practical reasons, now do you?

So why go back?

Maybe because it doesn't feel like going back. Because this is 'a country' with twice Europe's population, a country so large last time it took me months to cover just a part of the North.

Maybe because every city will show me something I'll love and something I'll hate. And always things I never knew before.

Maybe because there's not such a thing as 'too much chai' and spicey here means spicey.

Maybe there is no reason. No legitimate reason.

Maybe something unseen, untold, unheard just draws me here.

Core thing is here I am. And yes, again.

It probably won't be the last time.