Asia | India | Kerala | Kochi (Cochin) – Travel Day
I used to be sort of ambivalent about travel days. Not days that are part of a trip, but those days that you don’t spend sightseeing, or exploring a town, or swimming, or chilling out, but instead get up at the crack of dawn and start moving and don’t stop until you get somewhere. Travel days have traditionally been a combination of really interesting and really crappy for me, often times the more of the former, the more of the latter as well.
Like flagging down a pickup truck and climbing into the back, getting your ass pounded by the steel of the bed wall until it feels like a dull steak knife and so many people get shoehorned in along side you that you couldn’t shift yourself an inch and a half if you tried, and then even more climb on. But then you look over the head of the woman crammed in against your shoulder and there is the most beautiful vista you’ve seen in months, cliffs plummeting down from the road edge into a lake of the deepest blue, and the sun is shining and the wind is in your face and you decide to ignore the steak knife in your ass as much as possible.
India has not been like this. It’s been so much better. Transport, for one thing, is just dead easy here. There’s a train to nearly anywhere, with a computerized reservations office in the station staffed by someone who speaks a charming sort of English, and if there’s no train there are 19 buses a day. And if there’s no bus there are a dozen people dead set on making sure you get wherever you’re going, by whatever the accepted mode is.
Like getting from Mundoli back to Rishikesh, at the end of the trek last month. I never told you about that. According to the guide book a bus can be caught, but according to the guy running to chai stall on the uppermost switchback of the road into town, there’s no such thing. So I sighed and let him lead me down a shortcut to the bottom of the valley, where I was handed off to a Sikh dentist moonlighting as a travelling spectacle salesman who took me under his wing and assured me in a combination of gesture, limited English and extreme enthusiasm that he would get me as far as Thirali since he was headed that way. He tried to sell me some sunglasses too, but I showed him my glacier glasses with the nifty detachable side-shields and that ended that.
After an hour’s wait in the shade of a stack of flour sacks, we finally met our transport. A potato truck. Five of us, all men, payed ten rupees apiece for the privelege of hopping into the back, three on top of the cab, Manjit the dentist and I down in the bed among the potatoes. Manjit’s travelling companion looked down at us, pointing at Manjit’s beard and turban, and my whiteness, and declared “Osama bin Laden…..George W. Bush! HAHAHAHA HAHAHA!” And we all laughed, because it was kind of funny and we were all a little weary.
The truck got us to Debal, and a Mahindra jeep got us to Thirali, by which time it was about sunset; so much for my hopes of making it to Karnaprayag. Manjit and I had worked out a system of communication during the ride, and the more important bits of our discussion translate to something like this:
Me: “Do you know a place to stay in Thirali?”
Manjit: “Yeah. But it’s kind of a dive. Really cheap though. You don’t mind?”
Me: “Nah. I’ve been sleeping on the ground for the past eight days.”
And then after arriving and checking into the Thirali Lodge for forty rupees (=US$0.80)…
Manjit: “So, it’s OK?”
Me: “Yeah, super. The light even works in the toilet.”
Manjit: “Great. You like goat?”
Me: “Yes, I love goat.”
Manjit: “OK, we’re going to buy a goat for dinner. Meet us here in our room at seven o’clock.”
Me: “Thanks, that’ll be great. Is there a place I can get a shave?”
Manjit: “Yeah, just down the street.”
And then after getting a straight-razor shave in a barber shop with verses from the Koran and pictures of Mecca on the wall, and wondering if I should be proud of the amount of trust I was showing….
Manjit: “Sorry, no goats to be had. There’s a dhaba across the street where you can eat though.”
Me: “OK, thanks. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Manjit: “No, that reminds me! The local government is closing the road from Thirali to Karnaprayag tomorrow as a political protest. The only vehicle they’re gonna let through is the press jeep carrying the newspapers, so you’ll have to get up and catch that if you want to get out. It leaves at 5am. I’m going to Almora instead. Good luck.”
That’s exactly how it happened too. I walked in the next morning’s darkness twenty minutes to the junction, and when the press jeep showed up, there were already twenty men in it and two on top. So me and my backpack went onto the roofrack, right next to a student returning to university in Srinagar, a little past Karnaprayag, who took tremendous care to make sure I maintained a firm grip on the roof rack at all times. We whipped back and forth along one of the twistiest roads I’ve ever seen, through the Kali Ganga gorge and half a dozen little towns stacked steeply up the sides of the canyon wherever a little space allowed. Teeth chattering, we discussed international relations as the sky slowly pinkened with morning light, and I thought to myself how absolutely this was the sort of thing I came to India for.
* * * *
Not all travel days have been so dramatic, of course. Getting from Agra to Chennai was actually pretty straightforward: just a 32-hour train ride in second class sleeper. It sounds interminable, and boring, but it gave me a few moments I hope to hold onto for the rest of the trip. Rest of my life, if I could.
As it turned out, about 60% of the passengers on this train, including every single man in my compartment, were on their way to Chennai to take the Southern Railways Assistant Stationmaster Qualification Examination. If you want to be an Assistant Stationmaster, you have to take this exam. In Chennai.
So I was surrounded by hundreds of recent college graduates, all male and all within about three years of my age, bursting with questions about me, my home, my family, my political views, my job, my sex life, and every single thing I had in my backpack. The travel atlas of India in particular was a big hit, and I eventually gave up trying to keep track of it, letting it pass from hand to hand up and down the carriage until if finally showed up back on my bunk sometime in the early evening of the second day.
I got pulled into dozens of conversations too, some more willingly than others; one came out of the typical starting question, “From which country please?” and when I replied America the asker started giving me a lesson in American history. I was startled to learn that the reason Americans are so warlike is that they are all decended from English criminals. And here I was thinking that was Australia. Silly me.
My AP U.S. History teacher would’ve frowned and clucked if I didn’t do something about this. So I pulled out a scrap of paper and a pen, drew a sketchy map of the USA, and with the aid of lots of arrows and gestures and Simple English skills honed in a Tanzanian science classroom, told a condensed history of American immigration and expansion from Columbus and Jamestown to Manifest Destiny to the Cold War. This catapulted me to Celebrity of the Carriage status, and by the time the lesson was over at least twenty young Assistant Stationmaster hopefuls were crowded into our little six-person compartment, and I never wanted for company for the rest of the trip.
Taking a break from all the attention usually meant toting my Walkman up to the front of the carriage and sitting in the open doorway, watching the wheat and cornfields of eastern Maharashtra promenade by. The resident beggar of the carriage usually sat there too, since one of his legs was about a foot shorter than the other and I reckon he was more comfortable sitting on the floor. So I’d wedge myself between him and the doorjam, and he’d motion to me to give him one of the earpieces of my headphones, and we’d watch and listen together.
“Anywhere” by Dubstar has been a sort of guilty pleasure song for me for the past four years, total pop fluff but so upbeat and comforting. It will from now on be linked to an image of me and this guy with the short leg, grinning enormously to the music as the train rumbles across a truss bridge and we peer down through the late afternoon humidity at the fluorescent specks of women washing their clothes in the river, miles below our dangling feet.
Later in the day, one of the students who’d studied English Literature and wanted to practice his English with me for the ninth time that day dropped by, saying simply, “I was just bored, so I came over.” The fact that I was engrossed in The Lord of the Rings didn’t seem to faze him much.
Finally I told him, “Ok, you’re welcome to sit here, but I’m going to read, all right?” He gave a forlorn sort of look, so I offered to read the book to him, thinking he’d laugh at the silliness of the idea and wander off again, but he called my bluff enthusiastically.
So we sat there together, on the top bunk, I slowly reading aloud of Frodo and Sam’s ascent to the Stair of Cirith Ungol, and my new pal stopping me every sentence or two to ask the meaning of a word, or discuss Tolkien’s use of this particular metaphor or that alliteration, and it was one of the most enjoyable hours of reading I’ve ever had. I think we covered three pages.
* * * *
Getting from Kodaikanal to Kumily was supposed to be one bus and five hours, but after two beers at the Carlton Hotel and the wrong bus (“No problem, just take to Periyakulam and buses every hour on to Kumily!”), it turned into three buses, seven hours, and a truly fantastic travel day.
I think I finally got into this whole trip somewhere along that bus ride. Maybe after the 13th or 14th tiny village pause, when I let go of hurry and just looked out over the gorgeous green valley mapped out below a lowering sun, listening to the cracking Hindi music on the bus PA, wondering how people can hear something so deliciously syncopated and not be moved to dance to it.
Or maybe switching buses in Periyakulam, leaning against a concrete tank wall, sharing a tangering with a beggar while the guy in the white lungi perched on the wall giggled as a cow licked his feet and told me not to worry, a bus to Kumily was coming soon.
Not too soon, it turned out — near half an hour, and not to Kumily — I got unceremoniously dumped in Theni 16 km up the road, left to stand, anxious-looking, in the middle of an asphalt square while buses clashed and roared all around me. But it wasn’t so bad anymore, my paranoia was gone, replaced by something nearly its opposite, the lurking suspicion that nameless strangers are out to help you. And they were; two offical-looking men whose English vocabulary seemed limited to “Five minutes!” but who saw me onto the right bus, and made sure the driver honored my ticket, a frighteningly flimsy scrap of pink paper the size of two postage stamps scrawled in Tamil which I clutched and waved at whoever seemed to be in charge until I got a reassuring nod in return.
Since then, I’ve looked forward to travel days quite a lot more, and even sought to stretch them out a little. Kumily to Kochi could take six hours if you bus it straight through. Or it could take 30, if you don’t. The first four hours of the bus ride are the best, winding through tea plantations and a whole cabinet’s worth of spice farms, tumbling down the sides of hills too steep to plant on in any normal reality, specked with churches and temples and convents looking prim and lovely despite their perches on the edges of a lush abyss.
The road sinks and straightens slowly as tea turns to coffee, then to rubber, and finally to concrete and exhaust as the bus pulls into Kottayam and an anonymous thali joint where you’re the only gringo they’ve seen in months and lunch is twelve rupees (all you can eat).
The ferry to Allepuzha is even cheaper — eight and a half — and unfortunately no respite from the chubby ill-mannered kids of Indian tourists literally swinging from the rafters of the boat, as well as running up and down the aisles and jumping up onto the seats of silent farmers and housewives on their way home or to mosque, or maybe visiting friends or relatives for Dussehra. It’s beautiful though, gliding in stately form through a maze of canals and lakes, past rice barges with great square sails, and occasionally pushing through beds of water hyacinth so thick it feels like we’re boating through a green field.
A local bus the next morning finally got me into Kochi. That was three days ago, and I’m itching for another travel day already. So if anyone asks where I am right now, tell them I’m on a potato truck, in a boat, on a train, teaching history, learning Hindi, getting sunburned, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.