Friday 18th November 2016
Back in to Incredible India after a brief tour of Sri Lanka, and I couldn’t be more ready for it. The next thirty day stint was time to discover the southern delights India had to offer, which I expected to be vastly different to the busyness of the Rajasthani towns. Although I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, I could imagine lush open landscapes and palm tree lined beaches. I was definitely ready for the calm atmosphere and laid back adventures after jam packed days of forts and palaces.
After another full day of travelling, and mostly waiting around, we arrived in Chennai in the state of Tamil Nadu on the south-east coast of India. We have done a lot of travelling in the last week or so, so I was beginning to get pretty tired of it. Finding a cheap hotel to make a pit stop in the early hours, we then wandered the streets of Chennai city centre to find food and an ATM. This is when the trouble all began…! Whilst in Sri Lanka, the government of India decided to impose new tactics to wipe out black money, which appears to be a country wide problem. To do this, they have made all 500 rupee and 1,000 rupee notes void. Realising I had a big stash of 1,000 rupee notes in my purse, it was a matter of having to get rid of them. We were told you could exchange them at the banks until the end of December, but you could also get money from ATM’s in the form of 100 rupee notes, which were fine to use. However, queues for the banks were 4 hours long and all of the ATM’s were closed. We began to worry a little, because nobody would accept these notes, and it was all we had between the two of us. Managing to muster up a few small notes, we could afford a cheap local lunch (luckily Chennai isn’t touristy so we were paying real Indian prices), and then got an overnight sleeper bus to the south-west state of Kerala. This sleeper bus, however, was like no other we have yet experienced! It was such a relief to step onto this fancy tacky vehicle; to our surprise we had pillows and blankets, goodie bags with snacks, TV’s and air-con. It felt like pure luxury, I slept like a baby.
Kovalam: 2 days, 1 night-Marina Guesthouse
Arriving in the capital of Kerala, Trivandrum, we stopped for a dosa breakfast at a local hotspot before jumping onto a bus to Kovalam, a beach town in the very south of the state. Kovalam was once a tranquil fishing village, but has now become one of the most developed resort areas in the state of Kerala, and not in a good way. Arriving in Kovalam, we could already sense that we wouldn’t like the place; not only was the weather really overcast and densely humid, but the beach front was horribly touristy and bustling with local peeping toms who watched as you reluctantly ran to the sea to relieve yourself from the intense heat. We already realised that we did not want to stay here long. We did, however, finally find an ATM to withdraw money, although there was a limit of only 2,000 rupees. Besides the awful atmosphere, we stayed in a beautiful guesthouse right on the beach for only 400 rupees each, and also managed to get enticed by the boat-loads of Tibetan jewellery shops lining the beach. Unfortunately jewellery is my weakness, especially Tibetan! Disappointingly I hoped to improve our situation by eating my favourite dish of dosa, which originates from Kerala, but after scouring every single restaurant along the beach, we were told that they only cater for all of the westerners that come here. No local food….what is this place? After two days of harassment from local perves, shopmen and fruit ladies, we decided to take a train to Varkala, another beach town further north. Sadly, Kovalam gave me a strange warped view of the south of India, having been my first location. It would not be somewhere I’d recommend visiting.
Varkala: 2 days, 2 nights-Green House Ayurvedic Resort
Thankfully our next location was a far cry. Varkala, only a 30 minute train journey from Kovalam, began to feel like the southern Indian wonder I had imagined. Walking out of the train station to a pink dusk sky and the sweet aroma of a cardamon tree hanging above us, we felt a comforting sense of relief to be here. Precariously perched on the ever changing cliff tops, Varkala town has a spiritual and enticing setting that captured us immediately. The cliff top path, overlooking the beautiful strand of golden beach, is lined with jewellery shops, health cafe’s, yoga classes, guru’s, and ayurvedic centre’s. This already felt like the spiritual south, it was so tranquil and felt world’s apart from the northern states. We found a pleasant guesthouse named the Green House Ayurvedic Resort for a cheap fee, just off the north cliff-side path. Having arrived in the dark we were excited to see the beautiful setting the following morning. Beginning our first day with (surprisingly) my first yoga class in India, ‘Yoga with Haridas’, I felt very immersed in the Indian spirituality you hear so much about. Haridas our yoga instructor was a humble middle aged man with a small pot belly, but incredible flexibility. Having done yoga on and off for a few years in my home country, experiencing yoga in it’s origin was completely different. The class not only felt more spiritual as Haridas chanted us into meditative states, but we were also pushed into quite adventurous yoga poses, that we admittedly felt a little embarrassed attempting. After starting the morning on a good foot, we ate a scrumptious breakfast at the juice shack on the cliff top, then decided we would need to withdraw more money. After queuing for 3 whole hours to use the ATM, our morning ritual that had initially relaxed us began to slowly fade, until we felt a little harassed under the midday sun. To relieve this stress we decided to also try our first Indian Ayurvedic massage offered to us at the guesthouse. Having forgotten the experience my family friends have had, I was not expecting the bizarre events that were to come. Stripped of your clothes, you are sat on a stool while the masseuse prays over your naked body and slowly strokes your hair. The massage then begins on the bed, when you are drenched head to toe in home made ayurvedic oils. Although I did actually enjoy being doused in heavenly scented oil, it felt a little uncomfortable as they rub you down, rather than massage you. At least I can say I have experienced a true Indian massage. That evening we ventured back to our favourite restaurant, Trattorias, after another shopping session along the main stretch. I noticed that there were so many Tibetans and Kashmiri’s in Varkala, and was then told that this was because of the trouble with Pakistan up in the north. With Pakistan fighting for the land of Kashmir, in the very north of India, tourism was dying, so hundreds of northerners have fled to the south to sell their Kashmir shawls, hand painted boxes and tibetan silver. There is a clear look to the Kashmiri men, they have very soft and welcoming faces with lighter skin, and are extremely calm and kind. A lovely contrast. The following morning after another yoga session with Haridas, we headed down the precarious stone steps of the cliff side and onto the beach. The sun was beating down on us as fruit ladies sang their songs and local men collected mussels on the rocks. The crashing waves washed up jellyfish after jellyfish, as we began to feel a little uneasier diving into the ocean. Before our evening train, we decided to line our stomachs with some indian food, when suddenly the heavens opened! The cliff-top path became a river of rain water and were drenched arriving at the train station. What a contrast to the glorious weather we had.
Having started my Keralan experience on a bad note, I feel like as I venture further north I am beginning to see what this reputable area has to offer. Voted ‘the most socially advanced state in India’, there is definitely a different atmosphere in this part of the country. The vibe is relaxed, the local men less hassling as they stroll around in the Dhoti sarong’s and button up shirts. The higher life expectancy rates of this state are clear with the healthy and spiritual lifestyles they lead. I am intrigued to see what Kerala has in store.