Archive for the ‘South India’ Category

Island Travels

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

The hopeless romantic in me is alive and well.

Between the days of diving and the evenings of low key parties, there hasn’t been much time or impetus for writing. Scuba diving is an experience that resists description – until you try it you can’t quite understand what it’s like. The setting has the opposite problem: it so perfectly fits the tropical paradise bill it’s cliched.

Still, a few words on where I am are necessary. The Andaman Islands sit much closer to Burma than to the Indian mainland, but the British set up a penal colony for Indian dissidents and, following Japanese occupation in WWII, they were incorporated into the newly independent India. Geographically, they have much more in common with South-East rather than South Asia. The sand is creamy white and soft, like baby powder. The water that idyllic turquoise that adorns postcards taped to computer monitors in Canadian offices. My home is a rickety bamboo and wood structure looking in on a sandy courtyard of coconut palms. It’s beautiful and basic.

The simplicity, however, makes it hard to write. Unlike the crazy days of motorcycle crashes and cliff-edge roads, here I find myself lost in a blissful monotony of beach, hammock, book, food. It’s a holiday from traveling. The diving provides some keyboard-worthy highlights, no doubt, but I don’t really think I can do justice to the sensations of weightlessness and peace. The visuals are intense – tiny tropical fish, intricate coral structures, soaring sea turtles – and the empty darkness of the night dive was unforgettable. But if you aren’t a diver, how much common ground can there be?

Eventually, my laptop-opening motivation came from a girl. I can’t figure out if I should be surprised.

She arrived with a friend from university who was meeting me here. They’d been on the same flight from the mainland and had taken the ferry together. Because I had booked a room where I was staying for the friend, she decided to come check it out.

The instant we locked eyes I felt something. I saw in her face, in her sharp intake of breath, that she felt it too. I’ve never had that happen to me before. I was instantly worried and tried to play it cool through the introductions. A newly-minted doctor from Germany, though she hasn’t really lived there for years. My name is Evan.

One well acknowledged facet of the backpacker scene is the easy hook up. In party-centered spots such as the Thai beaches people are free from the social pressures of home and lubricated by local whiskey. Things begin and end quickly. There is an unspoken agreement to leave out any emotional attachment, both parties fully aware of the temporary existence that comes with traveling. And it’s fine.

In India, things are different. People are in the country for longer and can spend more time in the places they visit. They are often slightly older (say, 26 instead of 21) and more focused on culture, history and/or spirituality. Alcohol is taboo, taxed or even banned in certain areas, owing to the devout nature of local custom. Travelers talk in term of connections, not getting laid. Things remain temporary, obviously, but less so.

The situation is unique. It’s a middle ground that allows for beautiful relationships with deep emotional links without much risk of painful breakups. You know you only have a week or three together so you allow things to get intense quickly and you part in bittersweet acceptance. I made a mistake with this system last fall, getting too attached after a month with a girl up in the mountains. We went separate ways for two months and, when I tried to rendezvous with her down south, I found she’d met another guy. It was painful but entirely my fault. A learning experience.

With the doctor, things developed in a hurry yet felt natural. I found myself revealing things to her, things I reserve for my closest friends or family. She reciprocated and we would spend hours just prodding and poking. There was trust. She challenged me intellectually and didn’t hesitate to call me on my bullshit. I had to be sharp with her, any laziness would be pounced upon.

She was also jaw-dropping.

Now she’s gone. I want to be melodramatic but it doesn’t feel right. If we reconnect, wonderful. She’s a traveler and so am I. Odds are, however, that we’ll never see each other again. And it’s fine.

And therein lies perhaps the most valuable and life-touching aspect of long term backpacking: the other travelers. People from all over the world with amazing stories and experiences and perspectives. They barely know you and they push you and inquire into you, forcing you to inquire into yourself. You barely know them and you trust them and share rooms with them, talking about their fears and dreams before you know their age or last name. And, after all you’ve shared, you may never see them again.

And it’s fine.

The South

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

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…

A lull and Indian diversity.

Monday, December 28th, 2009

In the lull between Christmas and the New Year most travelers seem to be moving. One spot for the holiday, one for the party. Lots of people are heading north to Goa, where the beaches are busier and pricier yet maintain more nightlife. Here in Gokarna, the only parties are groups of revelers around beach fires sipping on rum and pulling on hash joints.

It’s a good time, to say the least, but for many it’s simply too relaxed. They want throbbing bass lines and laser light shows and world class DJ’s. Not I.

I’ll stay here, sleeping in the same bamboo and palm leaf beach hut, enjoying tandoori calamari at the same couple of restaurants, reading on the same patch of sand, floating in the same bit of Arabian Sea. It’s repetitive, sure. But stressful it is not.

I’ll take this opportunity (I hope) to impart on this site some observations and musings I’ve been developing during my time on the road. You may have noticed that the vast majority of my blog posts are focused on where I am and things I’m seeing. On mishaps with Tara or adventures with locals. What  I haven’t done is sum up India in and of itself, regardless of my interactions with it. A brief introduction follows, but I hope you’ll see a few more posts up here before the end of the decade.

It isn’t immediately obvious when you first arrive, but India is a startlingly multicultural country. For many of us it’s difficult to distinguish even between people of different South Asian nationalities, let alone within the countries themselves. Yet only half of the population of Nepal is actually Nepali by ethnicity, even if they’re all (mostly) citizens. In India, with the population exceeding a billion and a civilization as old as civilization itself, the differences can be startling.

In the mountainous north, every valley has its own traditional clothing, festivals and delicacies. Even many of the facial features and body types differ between the various regions. Many Himalaya residents resemble Tibetans more than Indians, with Buddhism dominating. Just to the west is Islamic Kashmir, where locals have sharper features and are just as likely to have red hair as black, and green eyes as brown. I’ve been asked several times if I was Kashmiri.

In the south of the country skin tones are darker and facial features more rounded than in the north. There is considerable overlap, obviously, as millennia of migration and regional warfare mix bloodlines. But I’ve learned to recognize a South Indian from a North Indian. Noting differences in regional languages helps make the distinction, but it isn’t an easy process.

In India, there are 18 official languages and over 250 recognized dialects. Despite being the official language of the federal government and of most entertainment (Bollywood included), Hindi is only spoken as a first language by 20 percent of the population. As a result many locals are multilingual, speaking passable Hindi and English in addition to their mother tongues.

The other major regional wild card is the food. Ah, the food. In all its glory, Indian food must rank amongst the great cuisines of the world. It is most easily split along geographical lines, with the Northern styles most common back home. Punjabi dishes such as malai kofta, chicken tikka masala and palak (saag) paneer dominate restaurants all across the north and central regions of the country. In the South, one finds spicier dishes such as vindaloos and also crepe-like dosas, stuffed with potato curry and served with a coconut chutney.

But the real key to local Indian food are the smaller distinctions – the local delicacies. Unlike the vegetarian dominated Indian food, Kashmiri food involves lots of meat – especially goat and chicken. Lamb rogan josh is a personal favourite. In Calcutta, street stalls sell egg rolls – the closest thing to a breakfast burrito you’ll find. Even smaller towns and cities will boast a particular sweet or dish as locally famous. Samosas are ubiquitous yet in certain places they come with chick pea curry and curd (yogurt) and in others potato curry and green chilli sauce.

Even something as simple as a cup of chai carries with it different flavours and serving styles. In the northeast cities, such as Varanasi, the tea comes in a small clay cup which is amusingly smashed on the ground when emptied. Apparently this used to be more common, as the idea of reusing a glass touched by a member of a lower caste was unimaginable. I can’t help but wonder if economics, rather than a relaxing of caste-based discrimination, had an effect on this policy changing over much of the country. At three rupees (seven cents) a cup, it must be hard to justify giving a wholly new vessel to each customer. Far in the north of India, at an altitude of 4000m, I had the best cup of chai yet. Up there, with access difficult to important spices, the locals grow their own on the mountainsides, often using wild ingredients. It was a spicy tea, almost too much so. Amazing.

I’ve only been here for five months, but already I feel better equipped to recognize the profound diversity that exists in the subcontinent. I try to stop at sweet shops in every town I’m in and ask for whatever they make locally. I walk into local restaurants and suss out what most of the people are eating, then order ‘one plate,’ pointing at someone’s meal. Sometimes, depending on the English abilities of the staff and clientele, I have absolutely no idea what I’m eating.

When I come home (eventually), I’ll spend some time searching out regional Indian restaurants. I’m just a little worried the chai will be a let down.


Thursday, December 24th, 2009

It’s Christmas Eve and I’m on a beach in India. I sort of expect a little homesickness or loneliness to sneak through this time of year.

But I sit here, eating a breakfast of fruit and yogurt muesli and listening to the surf crash into the golden sand, and I feel fine. I miss you, no doubt, and wish you could be here with me, but other than that I don’t really feel the need to come home. I have to give a good chunk of credit to the weather, which is so perfect here it’s embarrassing. I’m fully aware of the atmospheric happenings back home in Toronto and I have absolutely no desire to switch this for that.

Here my most stressful moments involve dodging cow shit on the beach. Yes, even on the beach there are cows everywhere. They plod slowly through the sand browsing for carelessly unguarded morsels. I watched one devour the thorny leaves lopped from the top of a pineapple. A grumpy bull with imposing horns ate a plastic juggling ball that some hippies had left lying about. He chewed on it for about five minutes but eventually got it down. Much consternation amongst the hippies.

Other than cow watching, there isn’t much for us to do here. Maybe I’ll play cricket with some domestic tourists and English backpackers (I’m a terrible bowler, but am making improvements in my batting). Perhaps lie on my back in the Arabian Sea and watch the sea eagles wheel above the palm fringed jungle that lines the beach. Their wings are two shades of chocolate, their heads and chests the colour of fresh cream. They soar effortlessly in the coastal breezes and thermal updrafts, making a mockery of even our best attempts to be free.

‘Us’ is a motley crew of internationals, ever evolving as some split off and others are assimilated. The family, as we call it, has its roots in Varanasi, where 11 people from 10 countries played soccer in the sand on the banks of the holy Ganges. Across the river from us smoke rose from a dozen funeral pyres, the families watching quietly as their loved ones returned to the goddess of the river. Since then the core of the group moved to Arambol beach in Goa, where more members were initiated with a game of soccer near the waves. This ended in disaster, naturally, as Andy from London broke his toe trying to separate a Russian tourist from the ball. Indeed Russian and European holidaymakers (two-weekers, or T-dubs, as we call them) have taken over Goa, it seems, so we’ve moved south to quieter beaches in the next state Karnataka.

Which is where I currently find myself. On the only-in-India named Om Beach, near the holy town of Gokarna, where beards and dreadlocks are ubiquitous. The family now consists of Andy, Andrew from Melbourne, Grace from Wellington (NZ), and the upcoming arrivals of Nils from Sweden and his Israeli friend Martin. We’ve also met a pair of Argentinians and a trio from South England (the cricketers) who were interested in our plans for Christmas Dinner and Secret Santa. This last idea should be especially hilarious, as there is no shopping on this beach (a world away from Goa) other than the occasional jewelry or fresh fruit vendor who stalks the sand harassing sunbathers. I get the impression everyone is going to be getting a bracelet and a half dozen bananas this year. Maybe a papaya.

I’m considering bottling some sea water. Swimming at night here is a trip in and of itself, regardless of what you’ve been rolling in your cigarettes. It’s hard to describe phosphorescence to someone who’s never seen it, but imagine millions of neon green fireflies in the water who only light up when you agitate them. The white foam that trails behind your hands and feet as you swim turns to bright green, and the ocean lights up around you in a thousand tiny flashes. It’s a scene, man.

So Merry Christmas. Don’t let the weather (or the man) get you down.