I want to start off this piece with a thank you. I really appreciate you reading what I post up here, especially considering it is happening with less and less frequency. I am privileged to know you. Unless, of course, this is the first time you’ve ever visited the site and the timing is just a coincidence. In that case… welcome!
Since my lazy lack of adventures over Christmas and New Years on Om Beach, I’ve covered a lot of ground on Tara. I’ve been to some undeniably authentic Indian cities, such as the one-time royal capital Mysore and Calicut. I’ve seen thousand year old temples built during the Cholan empire, which spread Hinduism far beyond India. It is to these kings we, as global backpackers, owe a massive debt, as without them the wonders of Angkor Wat and the idiosyncratic culture of Bali wouldn’t exist. I’ve been to a zoo where I watched a Bengal tiger and two lions try to out roar each other. I watched ten men haul a huge, levered fishing net out of the sea for a piddling handful of tiny fish.
While the bounty of the deep is in question, it did serve up an obvious highlight. I visited the very south tip of the subcontinent, Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin). There I watched the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean meet and mingle, getting to know each other (a little too) well. I wasn’t alone, either. I just happened to find myself there during a state-wide winter festival of Hindu pilgrimages. And the Tamil new year. Oh, and there was an eclipse. On the morning of January 15th, I joined some many thousands of Indian tourists, pilgrims, and families, as well as a handful of overwhelmed foreigners, to watch the sunrise. That afternoon the sun was reduced to a shimmering ring around the dark silhouette of the moon. At this very auspicious (love that word) moment, I plunged into three seas at the same time, and floated in the eery half-light of a solar eclipse.
Otherwise, the South has been a disappointment. Making comparisons is often difficult when traveling, as places are good for different reasons. But there is little doubt in my mind, now, when I consider the great dichotomy in traveling India: North or South? For me, North India represents the heart of the country in all its stimulation and frustration. South India, alas, is too touristy, too easy, and too expensive.
I should, out of fairness, give the South its due. I have come through it during the peak tourist season, when prices inflate dramatically and short term tourists abound. This has limited the sense of adventure. As well, I’ve stuck to a fairly tried and true tourist regiment, stopping in the major centres and seeing the major sights. Distances are shorter down here, compacted by the geographical slimming of the continent, and so I spend less time driving on Tara through village and field, and more time in cities.
There are some interesting draws, without a doubt. A Keralan local claimed that his state is a third Hindu, a third Muslim, and a third Christian. I saw far more mosques and churches than temples in Kerala, so I haven’t felt to need to verify this independently. Most of the churches are either Portuguese or, interestingly, Syrian. A throwback to the good old days of Christian Syrian merchants, sailing the seas and, obviously, pounding the Bible around. I tried to withdraw some rupees from the Catholic Syrian Bank, but the ATM was out of order. Damn.
I went out for dinner with a local man and a group of his friends in Trivandrum, Kerala’s state capital. The man, who I’d met on the beach over New Year, was Hindu, but his friends were a mix of Muslim and Christian. I described how Canada is big enough to fit three Indias within it, yet has a population approximately equivalent to Bombay. We discussed a little of my latent Christianity as we ate fish, beef, and chicken while drinking several beers. I think all of our Gods disapproved. The beef was delicious, if holy. Tandoori seafood, not to rub it in, is divine.
Yes the food down here is an obvious one, but warrants a mention. In Mangalore (not to be confused with Bangalore), I had chicken roasted in ghee, a clarified butter. It was incredibly rich and tender, melting in my mouth and exploding with fatty flavour. Southern thalis (set meals) come on a slab of banana leaf, with a pile of rice and several small dollops of various veg curries and soupy dhals. You basically mix it all around with your hands like a chunky finger painting, then scoop up misshapen orbs of rice and curry and stuff them into your mouth. The flavours blend beautifully, and the tactile sensation of the hot rice and mushy curry adds to the enjoyment. I’ve been eating with my hands for the last few months, and am starting to worry about how you’ll treat me when I return home and start packing my mashed potatoes and gravy into little balls with my fingers. Don’t judge.
Despite the culinary treats, my tour through the South is about to end. I’m currently in Pondicherry, the erstwhile French colony that still maintains just enough of a whiff of its Gallic roots to deserve a few days – despite the extraordinarily overpriced food. From here I’ll head to the pentasyllabic Mamallapuram, and then to Chennai to catch the boat out to the Andaman Islands. I’ll live on a beach, dive, snorkel, hammock, read, etc for a few weeks before heading up to Delhi to meet my parents, who arrive at the end of February. Until next time…