Sunday, 17 January 2010

I'm Still Standing

The Indian people are a pretty tollerant lot by and large. They dealt with the tiger-shooting, tea obsessed British Raj for a hundred years, still deal with the tattooed, beer drinking British invasion of Goa every year and, on the whole, seem pretty relaxed about the whole thing. However whilst staying at a hotel in the small Keralan town of Kollam, we saw tollerance taken to a whole new level. Walking into the hotel lobby they were playing the sort of "Pan Pipe Moods" muzak that you hear in dodgy european supermakets and lifts; only after about half and hour we realised that it was the same song over and over again, which, unfortunately, happened to be "Sacrafice" by Elton John.

Now, I don't mind a bit of vintage Elton from the Bernie Taupin partnership days, but Sacrafice is not exactly one of pops finer moments - to put it lightly. Seeing as we were only staying the one night though it was hardly the worst possible torture to endure. However, things did start to veer towards aural assault when it came blasting onto the piped music system at 6.30 the following morning, at which point I could take no more and sprung out of bed (a rare event) and stormed downstairs to reception to ask them to turn the f*cking thing off and why the hell were they playing a Bontempi keyboard version of Sacrafice by Elton John non stop for 24 hours anyway? which the poor bastard on the desk replied "Is that what this is Sir? Oh thank you! I have been wondering what it was for the last month...". Ouch.

Anyway, we had arrived in Kerala; the lush green state with the beautiful beaches on Indias South West coast and pretty much the first thing we did was head straight to a restaurant and order half a menus worth of seafood. I had been fantasising about Grilled Tiger prawns, Tandoori Snapper, Curried Crab, Calamari, Seafood Chowder, Massala Mussels and a host of other sea dwelling gastronomic delights for the last few weeks in North India. Not to say that we weren't enjoying the food in the North, but after two months the same twenty five items on every menu does get a little strained, and frankly there was no way we were ordering anything that swam in an ocean 800 miles inland. Fort Cochin, the old Portugese colonial district of Keralas capital was our first destination and perfect for gorging on fruit de mer. The smell of the harbour was in the air from the minute you arrived and you could pretty much see the famous Chinese fishing nets from most of the compact towns restaurants. We ate a plate of big super fresh prawns cooked in coconut and chilli, a whole grilled garlic-butter Red Snapper and a side of calamari washed down with cold beer and went to bed happy people. I won't even tell you how much it cost too, because it will only make you jealous.

Fort Cochin is a strange little place. Situated on the end of a pininsula accross the bay from the more noisy industrial side of the city, it feels more like a large village on a lazy sunday afternoon in places than a town. Smart little (and some not so little) whitewashed Portugeuse style houses and quiet streets give it a relaxed feeling a world away from the North, and after several weeks of total imersion into the Hindu way of life it seemed odd - almost out of place too see churches and chapels again. Although Christianity has been in Kerala for hundreds of years and is clearly an established religion there, you do get an underlying feeling that it doesnt quite fit in. Something about the way that Indians treat the imagery of Chrisianity seems like its being practised in way that a Hindu would do it, with the religions key players and symols, Jesus, Mary, the Crucifix etc all being turned into forms of Idol Worship. Many homes have what are effectively Christian shrines in them, often with a picture of Jesus (white of course) surrounded by strips of flashing lights and adorned with flowers and possibly some plastic figures of the disciples knocking around underneath.

To a practising european Christan this would probably look crude, tacky and out of line with the generally austere principles of the church, but thats often what Hindu shrines look like - the more gaudy and colourful the better. I have to say I quietly liked the fact that early white colonialists with a misguided belief that a monotheistic god was superior haven't totally been able to wipe out the traditions of the indiginous people. You've never seen such entertaining Christmas Nativity setups either. I wouldn't have been suprised to pull back the blanket on the baby Jesus's manger and find a sneeky Krishna hiding in there...

We only spent a few days in Cochin, which is all you need really. We ate, drank took a trip to a Cherai beach on Vypeen Island and watched some fascinating fishing techniques down on the harbour before catching a train to the superbly named Thiruvananthapuram (we stuck wih the English version - Trivandrum) where we arrived in an almighty rainstorm that had been going on for three days.
Stepping out of the station there was a good foot of water to wade through, so we sacked off the bus and hailed an old Ambassador taxi that stank of wet dog down to Kovalam beach. The rain was still thundering down when we got to the end of the tiny road that led to the beach and the taxi driver refused to take us any further, so we headed on blindly, packs on backs, through through the squal to find our accomodation.

Kovalam is basically one long beach with restaurants along its front and a maze of tiny muddy allyways with houses, huts, forest and eventually paddy fields behind. We had no idea where we were going and were both soaked to the skin in 2 minutes. Clearly no sensible person had come out that night and those that did were more interested in getting somewhere dry than giving directions to a couple of tourons in flip-flops 6 inches deep in fast flowing muddy water. Finally after a lot of buggering about we arrived and were greeted by an smiling old couple who plied us with chai and towells. I've probably said it before, but It's pretty hard to stay pissed off in India.

Now, nobody really wants to hear about someone elses beach holiday so I won't bore you with the details. Once the weather cleared up it basically invloved not a lot except laying on some sand as you do, going to restaurants to eat ridiculously cheap and ridiculously good seafood twice a day and making important decisions like whether to have a beer or a rum and coke. While the food was good we both felt pretty underwhelmed by Kovalam (the package holiday had clearly arrived) so left for Varkalala up the coast which we'd reliably been informed was much nicer. And it was.
Staying at what was our best hotel name yet "Santa Claus Village" (not one fecking elf thought the lying bastards) we did pretty much the same as Kovalam albeit in much nicer surroundings.

Varkala can be described a pretty much a massive Ewok Village perched on top of an iron-red cliff top with a long stretch of beach below. It's got a nice laid back feel to it and was a pretty easy place to spend some time. For my birthday Sam got me (and her) a course of Ayurvedic Massage, which was hell as you can imagine. Three days of three hour massages is hard work I can tell you. We saw the best display of DJing ingenuity yet that night too - an Indian guy somehow playing off an Ipod and Blackberry wired into an amp, just a shame he was crap really. Day Tripper mixed into Psycadelic Trance does NOT go, possibly thematically in an abstract sort of way, but definately not musically. I nearly had words, but Sam told me I was "pissed and a DJ pest" and to leave the master to his work.

We finished off a pretty decent birthday sat on the cliff top drinking low grade rum in a powercut and watching a mindblowing lightening storm fifty miles out over the dark ocean. And who said romance was dead? I have zero recolection of the conversation I had with my parents later that night too, but apparently I seemed "in a very good mood". Cheap booze, a shit disco and a decent light show still do the trick then...

View our pictures here:

Kerala Part 1

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