India has many types of travelers, some of which we’ve already talked about. There are the backpackers, the soul-searchers, the yogis, the beach vacationers, and then there are the travelers who want to see India, but comfortably. Admittedly I’m making grand generalizations, but we found ourselves running into these “more comfortable” travelers more in the south than any other part of India.
Our first stop in the south was Mysore, famously known as the birthplace of Ashtanga yoga, though we didn’t see any yogis…or any westerners for that matter. We arrived in the city intending it to be a quick one night stopover en route to more interesting places, based on the less than favorable reviews of the city by some travelers we met in Hampi. Mysore is logistically the best stopover for people heading south to the state of Kerala, or on their way north to Hampi. Overwhelmed with being back in big city for the first time since Delhi, and dehydrated and tired from the previous day’s excursion and train ride, Mysore seemed like nothing special at first glance.
Ian went in search of lunch (I accompanied him but I was too focused on rehydration to eat) and found a local thali shop where we were sat at a table, a banana leaf placed in front Ian and then heaped full of rice, daal, curries and curd…and replenished again and again. This was easily the most authentic Indian restaurant we had walked into, with Indians curiously staring to see whether Ian was able to handle the spice of the food. When Ian gulped down some water, blew his nose and just said “spicy” to the Indians eating across from us, they let out a loud laugh and seeing their smiles made us feel a sliver of excitement for the people and vibe of this so called “horrible” city.
The authenticity of the thali restaurant served as a beautiful microcosm for the rest of Mysore. After lunch we walked around and were amazed at how few Indians talked to us, solicited us or offered us this that or the other. Instead, for the first time in India, we were able to watch true Indian life revolve around us. It was surreal in many ways to finally feel like a fly on the wall and be able to watch the Indians deal with the hustle and bustle just as we do in Boston, New York or any other major city in the United States.
We bumped into a tuk-tuk driver that Ian had been talking to earlier in the day and offered to take us around the city for the “Indian price”, as he called it, of 20 rupees (about .30 cents). We couldn’t turn it down so we hopped in. He sped through traffic in his new tuk-tuk his mother had just bought it for him, blasting his favorite songs and honking his clown horn (it was actually a horn that clowns would use to startle you) while explaining to us the various bazaars and how, within Mysore, Hindus, Muslims and Christians all co-exist together. It was astounding to see a Christian church while in the background you hear a mosque doing their ‘call to prayer’, with Hindu temples popping up at various corners of the city. In many ways, this sort of religious acceptance into society is something we don’t feel we have actually seen so openly even in our own country. The excitement and sense of pride that our tuk-tuk driver had about Mysore was infectious and we felt excited knowing that, despite this place’s criticism amongst other travelers, it actually is quite an amazing place if you pay close enough attention.
Though Mysore certainly had more to offer we had already bought our bus tickets to continue along the road. And so in the early hours of the morning, before the sun had even started to think about rising, we arrived in Cochin and stepped off the bus into a wall of humidity. I’m talking, cut it with a knife, feel like you’re swimming, humidity. Since it was still too early for the city buses to run we took a tuk-tuk to Cochin Fort, where most of the travelers stay, where we had to wait the few hours until check-out time when we would then be able to check-in to a room. We mostly spent those hours in the plastic chairs trying to sit very still, hoping to fool the hundreds of mosquitoes into thinking we were statues, and alternating between sticking and sliding in our own sweat. THEN the sun came up and we began to melt in earnest.
Nevertheless, we decided to explore the area that everyone had been talking so highly of. Kerala is one of the wealthiest states in India, supposedly very clean (although their beach was depressingly covered in trash), and with an outstanding education system—almost everywhere you look kids are walking around in their school uniform. It also displays the architecture and culture left behind by the many colonizing nations. It’s because of these cute colonial towns and more western atmosphere that we found ourselves among the “comfortable travelers,” mainly European families and middle-age tour groups. The difficulty with being among these tourists is that the prices for accommodation and food skyrocket, even though the rooms are basic and the street food they’re overcharging for is bland.
We rented bikes and tried to explore the other parts of the fort but only managed to find streets clogged with tourist and shops selling Ali-baba pants and “India” t-shirts. The whole scene wasn’t really our style; it felt so far removed from the India we had been experiencing. Just when we were starting to enjoy the hard earned breeze and the not so glitzy, more functional old colonial parts of town, my bike tire exploded and once again we found ourselves resembling a Dali painting. A friendly tuk-tuk driver stopped to help us, but realizing his tuk-tuk was too small, called a friend to take us and our bikes back to the guesthouse. All the while a toddler made faces at me through a window and disappeared behind the curtain in fits of laughter when I responded in kind. The interesting thing about India is that for as little money as people make they are not greedy and hoard it to themselves, instead offering to call their friend with the bigger tuk-tuk or their uncle with the nicer guest house when they don’t have what you’re looking for. But that generosity has its limits and does not extend to foreigners, and while they are always very friendly, and eager to help you in whatever way they can, they are also looking to benefit from it. So while the two tuk-tuk drivers were more than accommodating playing tetris with our two bikes trying to fit them in the small cart, they also charged us pretty penny which I’m sure they would split equally later.
Cochin by night was what really enchanted Ian and me. A local arts theater provided nightly performances in traditional Indian song, dance and music. The first night we went for the dancing, performed solo to honor different Hindu gods. Each dance was executed in a series of stomps, emphasized by the cuffs of bells worn around each ankle, twirls, hops and dips, with exact hand and eye movements, and a smile. It was only when a novice dancer performed that it became clear just how much effort goes in to each twist of the hand or bend at the knee. We returned a second night for sitar and tabla drums and sat for an hour totally enrapt in the undulating sounds of the tabla and exotic whine of the sitar, that when combined added an air of sensuality to the hot Indian night. The second night had even fewer audience members, adding to the intimacy of the music.
Our final day we went on a day tour of the Backwaters, a network of rivers and canals that disappear into the lush overgrowth leading to more isolated villages. We spent the morning on a smaller boat that can be polled along the smaller canals, hopping off to visit a coconut farm, and take a walk through spice trees offering pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, and bay and curry leaf. We made a somewhat comical acquaintance of a middle-aged American woman from Wisconsin, visiting Cochin as an official judge of a dog show. And my god was she American. I found her fascinating in that she is part of that American statistic who would not venture outside the country, but because of her work in these dog shows (of all things!) is actually rivaling my passport. And while she complained about the heat, the skinny looking dogs, and the spicy and altogether too flavorful food, I commended her for venturing outside her comfortable hotel and safe schedule to take advantage of some of the attractions of India. After lunch and pictures with the locals (in this case two women who approached me shyly asking for a quick picture because of my pale skin and blonde hair) we transferred to the larger traditional covered boat and with the enormous effort of the one man with a large pole, cruised down the main canal.
We felt proud of ourselves for finding the backpacker way around Cochin while still taking advantage of the culture and all it has to offer. That said, we were ready to move on.