I know I haven’t written much about India so far. It must have been a combination of writers block and overall laziness. And the damp heat in Kerala wasn’t any help either. But now that I’m recovering on a heavenly beach on Koh Pha Ngan, I guess I still owe you a report on our trip through South India. From the hectic in Mumbai to the beaches of Goa. And from the surreal boulders around Hampi to the palm-fringed backwaters of Kerala.
When we arrive in Mumbai after a 26-hour train ride from Agra the first thing that strikes me is the traffic. It’s just plain crazy. I suspect our cab driver’s actual job is being a stunt pilot. We pass cars on the right and on the left. Just centimeters from hitting them. “If you can drive in Mumbai, you can drive anywhere”, he tells us. Without a doubt.
He drops us off at the 5-star Vivanta by Taj hotel. We have decided to treat ourselves on a couple of nights of luxury after all the cheap guesthouses we had stayed in lately. Because if there’s one place in the world where 5-star hotels are affordable, it’s Mumbai. While, unsurprisingly, we spent most of our time in Mumbai in the hotel, we actually do manage to get out a couple of times.
On the first night we go on a street food tour. It’s just the two of us and our guide. First stop is Chowpatty Beach where we try the local specialty Pani Puri and Kulfi, a frozen dairy dessert that looks like ice-cream. Things you would never eat otherwise. After Chowpatty we grab a taxi to the Muslim Quarter where a couple more dishes a waiting. I’m surprised when I find a shop where they sell marzipan. How nice to have that on the 5th of December!
The next day we join another tour and visit the Dharavi slum (the one from Slumdog Millionaire). It’s interesting to see the different communities as well as how the Indian recycling industry works but we actually can’t wait to return to our absolute highlight of Mumbai: the Vivanta by Taj Hotel 🙂
From the beginning of our (mostly) overland journey to India we’ve always had in mind to return to the beach in Goa. And so, after 5 months without seeing any ocean or sea, it was there where we could finally dive in. Goa has always had something mythical to me. It was the end of the hippie trail. Where long-haired unfettered types were dancing the night away on trance music. I know these days have long gone by but still Goa has a magical charm.
We first check out Arambol in the north. It’s a lovely town. Of course full of tourist shops and the like but there’s a nice vibe. I has a good mixture of hippies, long-stayers, locals and package tourists (Russians mostly). The long beach is full of activities: fishermen preparing their boats, people doing yoga or playing volleyball. Others are in deep meditation. And at night there’s an occasional party in one of the beach shacks where it’s especially fun to see the Indians showing their Bollywood dancing moves. Or a Westerner dressed in women’s cloths expressing his new-found freedom through ballet on techno beats. Interesting.
Still, as much as we liked Arambol, after a couple of days we move to the southern end of Goa. To Palolem, apparently the most beautiful beach in Goa. And it’s gorgeous indeed. A nice white-sand beach in a bay lined with palm trees. In between colorful beach huts and restaurants. But as beautiful as it is, there’s something missing. It’s the vibe. It’s the people. No volleyball matches, no local fishermen. No hippies but hordes of package tourists instead, flying in on direct charters from London. For a moment we think of moving back to Arambol. But we decide to stay. Better to stay put in one place for a while. We need a break from traveling. Besides that, we will meet our friend Elena (from the Tibet tour) here.
And it’s nice to have a bit of a routine. Carina subscribes to a 5-day healing course while Elena and I find the perfect yoga Baba where I have my first yoga classes. We celebrate Christmas with Elena and Hilde, an old friend from Arnhem who is staying in nearby Agonda. Life in Palolem is good. But if I ever return to Goa, it will be to Arambol.
After Christmas we leave Goa and head for Hampi, an old ruin city about 8 hours inland from Goa. The scenery is surreal. Vast stretches of boulder-strewn hills dotted with ancients Hindu temples, the basements of old palaces, market streets and , aquatic structures. In between green paddy fields and palm trees. It’s a wonderful landscape. Better even, this would be a great place for a party!
Because… Hampi is also the place where we will be with New Year’s Eve. Now you have to know that Karnataka, the state that Hampi belongs to, is essentially a dry-state which means no alcohol, no party. Actually, it seems to come down to having fun here is an offense. Now you might think: Isn’t Goa a better place to celebrate NYE? Probably. But, hey, we’re in Hampi now so we have to make the best of it. And, regarding the alcohol, there’s of course an exception for tourists. So we head for the so-called bottle shop, more like a hole in the wall, to buy a dusty bottle of Indian whisky.
And so, in good company of our Welsh neighbors Oak and Rosie, the Scotsman Euan and his wife Lindsay, we are drinking our bring-along bottles while waiting for the big party to start. And it looked promising. Lots of people came in, there was even a DJ playing some records. But then it was midnight. There was a countdown, there were a couple of fire crackers and the overenthusiastic Indians took the opportunity to kiss some Western women. I think the festivities lasted about 15 minutes. Because, as I said, in Karnataka they don’t like a decent party. Nevertheless, we had a good night. And actually a good sleep too.
H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama, Bylakuppa, Karnataka
What better than to start the new year with a visit to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, as you are respectfully supposed to call him. That’s what we thought so on the 1st of January we hopped on the night train to Mysore to attend the last day of the teachings given by H.H. at the Sera Jey Monastery in Bylakuppa, a 2-hour bus ride from Mysore. It was a bit overwhelming when we got there. We found out that about 30.000 people, mostly Tibetan monks, were attending his teachings. When we talked to a Tibetan man about our visit to Tibet last October we realized that for them being a refugee it’s impossible to return to their home country. And what a privilege it is for us to be able to travel the world freely.
Unfortunately we only attended the teaching for an hour or two because our cheap transistor radio, needed to hear the translations, was functioning as it should. The signal interrupted every couple of seconds making it impossible to hear what H.H. had to say. Still, the energy of 30.000 people making the “Ohm” sound as well as seeing and hearing the Dalai Lama from so close by, is an unforgettable experience.
Next destination on our India tour is Kerala, the region in the south-west of India and known for it’s backwaters and tea and spice plantations. We had chosen to go for Kerala instead of the Andaman islands, a decision we soon regretted. Because as beautiful as Kerala may be, we found it a bit disappointing. Our first stop is Wayanad, the mountain area in the north of Kerala. It looks promising at first. On our way there we drive a landscape of green rice paddies, betel nut trees, bamboo, red earth, rubber, cardamom and coffee plantations.
But then we end up staying in the ugly town of Kalpetta. Obviously a wrong choice but staying at one of the luxury home stays on the plantations would have costed us a fortune. We decide to go on a wildlife safari the next morning, but it’s not rewarding at all. The jeep rushes through the forest and instead of the wild elephants we were hoping to spot we only see some deer and a couple of wild boar, animals we can see at home too. It appears not to be the right time of the year to spot wild elephants. Nice they didn’t tell us beforehand.
To make the best of it I decide to climb Chembra Peak, the highest mountain in Wayanad. But at the entrance gate I now find out that it’s not allowed anymore to climb all the way to the top. Obviously some Indian tourist fell down once. A heart-shaped lake is as far as I’m allowed to go. While the ride to the start of the walk goes through beautiful tea plantations, the walk up is once again disappointing. No tea or spice plantations here, just grasslands. And the heart-shaped lake is nothing more than a sad pool of water. I’m definitely done with Wayanad.
So we head back to the beach. To Varkala. This popular backpacker’s hangout is perched along the edge of beautiful red cliffs. I subscribe to a 7-day yoga course (I even did the head stand!) and we meet some great people here. But there’s something wrong. We feel restless. Unhappy almost. We realize that we have hit a so-called travel wall. All the same tourist shops selling all the usual tourist stuff, the uninspiring menus that seem to be a copy of the restaurant next door, the endless massage proposals, it’s all too much of the same (and not different!). In Goa we still needed a bit of a break from travelling but after having spent more than 2 weeks on beaches and backpacker hangouts we’re now ready for some action and adventure again. And this action is exactly what we cannot find in Varkala. Besides that, the unbearable damp heat sucks the last energy out of us.
It’s clear that we need a change. A change of culture, a change of scenery, a change of activity. We use our time in Varkala to make new plans and we decide to go to New Zealand. Back to the mountains. Hiking, cycling, camping, back to nature and, above all, a more active lifestyle.
After 10 days we leave the tourist enclave in Varkala and get back in the matrix that’s called India. On our way to our homestay at the backwaters around Kollam we pass a religious Hindu procession. We’re a bit shocked when we rows of men standing with 4 or 5 next to each. Basted together through their cheeks with a long iron pin. But before we comprehend what we just saw, there’s a truck with 3 Hindu men hanging on hooks that are pierced through their back skin and legs. And another truck. And another.
I think there are about 12 trucks with men dangling on hooks attached to poles like a bait on a fishing rod. It’s surreal and creepy at the same time. But we realize that this is the India that we want to see. Like our visit to the Hindu temple in Varanasi. Or the bathing ceremonies at the ghats.
Because maybe Kerala wasn’t exactly our place, we still love India. With it’s strange rules like not being allowed to smoke on the streets while you probably inhale the equivalent of a whole pack of cigarettes in the back of an auto-rickshaw during rush hour. With it’s curious head wobble that can mean anything from yes to no to maybe. With it’s traditions and colorful, funny people. Always ready to help you out.
We will be back for more, that’s for sure.