Snakes and Undercover Bars

Tour of South India – Kochi and Tiruchirapalli

Kerala backwater cruise

After another tiring overnight bus journey (but at least I had a bed on my own this time!), I made it to Kochi in Kerala.  Kerala is modestly refered to as ‘God’s own country’ by the locals. Parts of the state have beautiful tropical beaches and mangrove-lined backwaters, but Kochi itself is a laid back fishing town, with picturesque old colonial architecture and a stunning view from the jetty of the massive Chinese fishing nets used by local fishermen. And of industrial silos and cranes from the nearby port. But it’s still a worthy addition to the tour schedule. It has a distinctly un-Indian vibe; for example, it has a huge Christmas tree and it’s the first place that I’ve visited in which no-one complains when they have to give me change. Everywhere else they either seem to be surprised that you don’t have the exact money, or they covet change like Gollum cherishes the ring. It’s the little things that make the difference…

This was where I hoped to meet up with my friends who I had met in Goa. However, upon checking in to my homestay I found out that they had experienced major travel problems which delayed their arrival, meaning that I made it to Kochi first! So I took the opportunity to wander around, noticing that this was a ‘Men in Skirts‘ part two for me (after part one when I visited Fiji a few years back), with the local men wearing fetching mini-sarongs and I also attempted to make use of the generous offer of free internet at my homestay. Unfortunately, they didn’t feel the need to install virus protection on their PC, meaning that trying to use the internet was the technological equivalent of asking a leprosy sufferer to swim the English Channel; slower than a snail on Valium, before sinking without trace… Reboot.

After meeting two of the five Travbuddies, we took a cruise of the backwaters on a long-boat propelled along by a man with a pole. Slow, certainly, but relaxing and beautiful with plentiful wildlife, including snakes and colourful birds. We also stopped off to look at some of the small local businesses which made ropes and mats out of coconut twine and cement out of roasted shells. The workmen clearly like to let their hair down after a hard day’s work. There were piles of empty rum, vodka and whiskey bottles, plus many floating on the rivers. Typical India, ruining the environment with litter once again.

In the evening, the remaining Travbuddies arrived and we set-out to find a bar to celebrate. This is not such an easy thing to do in Kochi, as only a few places have an alcohol licence. One pub, called XL, was a real local drinking den; dark and with little charm. Or seats. So we settled for a friendly place called the Bird’s Nest. But no beer, only cocktails. It turns out that they don’t have a licence and recently got busted by the police for selling beer, spending 30 days in prison as a result. So now they sell only cocktails, as they are convinced that the police will “… think it is just fruit juice”. Genius.

Working hard in the tea plantation ('No Tresspassing' sign just out of shot)

The next day two of the group had to leave, so the remaining four of us hired a driver to take us to Eravikulam National Park in the mountains 150km outside of Kochi, going around hairpin bends on the wrong side of the road (well, it is easier to overtake that way). On the way we saw some elephants being given a good scrub down with coconut shells by their keepers. As well as stunning, misty views, this area is home to spice plantations and tea plantations. This should be heaven for an Englishmen, yet they insist of flavouring tea and coffee with cardamom, which I hate!

So after enjoying Kochi, I just had to get to my final destination Tiruchirapalli (Trichy for short), where I would catch a flight to Sri Lanka. Easy, right? Wrong. Firstly there was a taxi strike which meant that I had to catch a local bus to the overnight bus stop. But I wasn’t close to the local bus stop either! Luckily the staff at my homestay went out of their way to help, transporting my case on a motorcycle, before coming back to give me a lift. I swatted a mosquito with my eyeball  on the way.

The local bus dropped me in an unfamiliar area and I wasn’t sure where to go. Then the handle of my suitcase came off in my hand. I laughed in embarrassment but the locals just stared at me like I was an alien. I spotted a luggage store and bought a new case… It lasted precisely two minutes. I had crossed the road and checked in to the travel office, but when I went to pick up my case the handle snapped off in my hand again. Cue more stares. I went back to the shop and came out with an ‘Adidas’ holdall, the only other thing that they had that was big enough. There was no padding on the strap, so I was cursing India as it dug into my skin in the humidity.

When I reached my overnight bus stop, I spied a bar opposite. Result! As I entered I saw that it had no windows, grubby white walls and was only wide enough for one row of tables. I took the one in the corner and sat facing outwards so I didn’t have to look at the dirty fish tank containing one micro-fish. However, the two men on the next two tables were both facing me and seemed to be in a ‘how long can you stare without blinking?’ contest. When a new man arrived and sat at a table, no words were spoken between the men. And there was no music. Lovely place. Later I realised that there was another bar, with air conditioning – they actually had different classes of bar! It was much nicer, even though there were only men there, holding hands as usual. They just love to touch each other…

After catching the sleeper bus to Madurai and then catching a decrepid local bus with soiled seats to Trichy, another picturesque Indian city (I’m lying of course) I took in a couple of temples, one up a 500 step climb which had great views, whilst the other had ornate and colourful towers. But then it started raining and my bare feet were becoming filthy. Time to head back to the hotel. As I end my final day in India, I can’t say that I’m unhappy to be leaving, but I will be back one day, just better prepared! It’s be a hell of an experience.

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