Going from Chalakudy to Trivandrum to meet Eileen, I made it to a bed in the sleeper carriage of the train in the end, thanks to a bit of luck and the nice conductor who took me to an empty bed within minutes of seeing the small tired me surrounded by big bags. Arunima was right about the few advantages of being a lone female traveler in India. Still, I started the journey annoyed when, trusting a local traveler, I had let an earlier train going to the same destination pass by. Never trust just one person for information!
Arriving at Trivandrum before sunrise is not the best start but a very helpful man walked me from near the train station all the way to the right bus. For the purposes of leading a healthy lifestyle, he goes to bed at around 7 or 8pm and rises at 4.30am or so for his daily morning walk, before the city wakes up and the crush of people and traffic crowd the roads. It doesn't sound too bad!
A new chapter of my travels began as soon as I reached the airport. Having a traveling companion alters the course of the journey drastically. Eileen and I journeyed across Kerala's highlights, starting with Trivandrum for one night for Eileen's acclimatisation; Kovalam another, a nearby beach resort, the most visited in Southern India; Varkala for two nights, a cliff edge beach further north, beautiful in its cliff settings though still teeming with tourist shops and restaurants - these however are thankfully kept on the cliff top leaving the beach relatively free from hassle; Allepey for one night to catch a gentle canoe boat tour of Kerala's famed backwaters, a system of canals and rivers that cross open plains, natural wildlife and laid-back villages around; Cochin for three nights, a city that is a collection of several lands and is the economic centre for Kerala, and finally the cool and scenic hill station of Munnar for one night, a town built high above sea level, thus enjoying cooler climates, and whose landscape is flowing with lush green tea plantations, very much like the scenery of Wayanad. This all took around 10 days, the same amount of time I spent in Mumbai alone!
There were various highlights for those days. First was meeting 'Abdul' (in inverted commas because this is an inaccurate version of his name. I'm annoyed my memory is such a sieve), a fisherman from Kovalam. Eileen and I came across a mass of fishermen hauling back what turned out to be a gigantic net that had earlier been cast out to sea by one boat that rowed out as far as it could. Once the net was cast and fish swam into the bait, two groups each with around 20 men worked on pulling in the catch. The process made up to about an hour's worth of heavy pulling. What I loved seeing in the process was Abdul, who pulled the end of the rope and seemed to lead the way. He cajoled the group and raised the energy by starting up a stream of songs and chants which everyone else joined in with. It's one of the things I love about Indian culture - the propensity to add song and dance into everyday life. Abdul looked relaxed in the tough environment and smiled at me regularly. We chatted in broken English and somehow developed a bond. Once the whole net finally came to shore, he took my hand to lead me through the throngs of crowds that gathered to see the catch and led me to a better position. It's true what Gregory Roberts mentioned in Shantaram - that locals can decide to like you in a very short time and once they do, they are willing to help you to the end.
Second on the list was encountering relative tranquility at Varkala, encouraging us to stay an extra night. With the extra time, we were able to walk along the Malabar Coast and then around a small town north of the beach resort, leading us to various homes to have food and to young people playing sports. Eileen and I took part in a fun game of cricket followed by a more serious game of badminton. Here and in Kovalam, however, I found myself getting increasingly disheartened by the lack of culture and substance that I came across. With every walk passing by tourist shops and restaurants filled with the same items and menus, I began to feel myself moving further and further away from the country that I had been getting to know in the last 5 weeks. Even other backpackers seem more cold and distant, I suppose due to the 'beach resort' nature of the place. Still, it was to be expected when going to such highly recommended places.
Third highlight was FortCochin, within the metropolis of Cochin which encompasses the areas of Fort Cochin, Mantacherry, Ernakalum and various islands. We extended our stay here, seduced by Fort Cochin's laid-back atmosphere, tree-lined roads and sea-front walks. Within the first hours of unpacking here, we met Sean, a 22-year old free-spirited musician who travels with a backpack the size of an ordinary day bag (and still complete with a blow-up mattress, first aid kit and some chunky books), and a three-quarter size beautiful guitar bought in Mumbai. We walked around together as Sean took us through his 5-day life in a city he also liked, filled with local people he met along the way. He reminded me of my earlier traveling days in India. We spent a wonderful evening getting food and then sitting on the balcony of mine and Eileen's guesthouse, talking and listening to Sean play and sing his own music and some familiar songs. He was amazing! Being able to sit there and listen to his live music was such a great privilege and I spent the evening overjoyed. His girlfriend, herself a wonderful singer I'm told (currently trying to forge a career as a singer/songwriter in Canada), was to join him in a few weeks. With his guitar, they can spend their days writing songs and singing together. I can't imagine a more perfect union!
On the second day, Eileen and I hired bikes and rode it around town - a great decision!
Anna, Julia and Julie
Munnar's highlight was in meeting an interesting group of girls on our otherwise forgettable organised gentle hike up a nearby mountain. Anna, a German in her late twenties, has just completed a Masters degree at SOAS in International Politics and is soon to work for the World Expo in Shanghai for eight months. Julia is a German 20-year-old taking a gap year before university through volunteering at an old person's home in Mangalore, Karnataka. The project is sponsored by her government and involves her planning and preparing activities for the residents in the home. She has aspirations to possibly get into journalism and has so far already achieved two article publications in a well-known youth circulation in Germany. But like me, her interests are eclectic and her career will most likely span several avenues. 19-year-old Julie volunteers alongside Julia but is only committed for a few months. She will return to France to study for her entrance exams to get into a particular school for nursing. Their company made it a brilliant day, encompassing hiking, visiting a tea museum (another, otherwise forgettable sight) and having lunch at a favourite haunt of mine - Saravana Bhavan, a chain serving South Indian food that I first came across in East Ham in London.
Bottom of the list in highlights was a stay at the Lemon Tree guest house in Allepey, which contains a rather grotty group of self-contained huts and is run by a group of 18-25 year old boys whose sole aims seem to be to prey on female travelers staying there to ultimately obtain a foreign girlfriend. The owner of the establishment has succeeded, we were enviously told, and was then traveling in Thailand and India with his British girlfriend. Others among their group of friends also had similar successes, with some even leading to marriages and a move to wealthy Australia and beyond. 25-year-old Jos, who annoyingly attached himself to us, made his complaints of the difficulties of getting a foreign girlfriend exasperatingly and repetitively audible.
Tying together this section of travels is of course Eileen, whose wit and humour kept me going through the difficulties and enriched me through the good times. Being able to share an experience with someone is always a blessing, in this case made better by our shared memories of school life and beyond with more than a decade of recollections. I was firmly back on the 'beaten track' traveling-wise but I didn't mind it particularly because that in itself was an experience and a journey.
Kerala's journey ended for me after 3 whole weeks. Leaving Munnar for Pondicherry in Tamil Nadu was achieved with some difficulty and we ended up having to spend the night in a dirty but convenient room available within Madurai train station before catching our onward journey.