The next morning, I had a somewhat unnerving but also amusing experience at the airport as I queued to go through security for my flight from Mumbai to Kochi. The rest of my stay was to be in the state of Kerala. Kochi is a port city on the south west coast of India, some 900 miles from Mumbai.
As we shuffled forward in line the guy behind kept bumping into me, moving closer, and generally not following the unwritten rules of personal space. My senses were heightened by this because the last time something similar happened a couple of years ago I was pickpocketed in Tenerife. Or at least I would have been if I hadn’t caught that thief in the act. He had ended up on his back with me on top of him holding him down, but, although this would have again been easily achievable, I didn’t fancy that scenario in the security zone of an international airport, so I merely backed firmly into the current offender, turned round, and growled ‘Are you after my wallet? Keep your distance’. He was mortified and apologetic. Then I looked around the other queues and realised they were all doing it! I don’t know why I hadn’t experienced this before – perhaps it’s a Mumbai thing – but in each line they were all crowding into each other in a way that would cause apoplexy in a British queue!
I thought it was humid in Mumbai. Kochi is officially in the tropical zone of India and leaving the air-conditioned plane for the climate of Kochi was like leaving a freezing outdoors to enter an overly central heated home during a fierce Newcastle winter.
Introduction to the driver, the guide, and the hotel
My latest and last combo of driver and guide went by the unlikely monikers of Vino and Clyde. They delivered me to the Tea Bungalow, a small guesthouse/hotel with rooms ranged round a combined lobby/reception/dining area. My room opened directly behind the reception desk, and I remain uncertain whether this repeatedly proved to be more unnerving for me or the receptionist. The hotel had a small but very welcome pool where I spent the rest of the afternoon cooling off. I fell into conversation with two British couples holidaying together, and from them established the best place to spend the evening. I had more or less stopped referring to my Lonely Planet; you almost always get the best advice on the ground – there’s usually someone who’s got there ahead of you and knows the lie of the land.
That holiday feeling
Later that evening, sitting on the dock of the bay – as Donovan once sang – at the Seagull bar/cafe watching a magnificent sunset I felt a million light years away from the stresses and strains of the early part of trip. Not that the whole journey hadn’t been extraordinary, fascinating, and enjoyable; I just suddenly felt, for the first time, that I was on holiday! This feeling remained with me the following morning with my obligatory tour of Kochi, which was a bit pointless, as there really isn’t that much to see. Nonetheless Bonnie & Clyde ferried me round in the languorous tropical heat and I oohed and aahed at appropriate moments. The most interesting aspect was the diversity of religions on offer. Muslim and Hindu temples jostle for position alongside Christian churches and Jewish synagogues. Kochi also has a definite feel of the Caribbean, not just from the temperature but also the laid-back attitude and the style of the shops and houses.
A few unrelated observations
Indian waiters and bar staff – particularly in hotels – are almost speechless when they discover you are dining/drinking alone. It makes them even more attentive, to an irritating degree. On one occasion I was asked four times if someone was joining me for dinner, then eight times if I was enjoying my meal and all was ok.
Tourists who at first sound appear to be American are very often not. The influence of the US accent on Europeans who speak English well is becoming predominant. I sat earwigging a conversation between a thirty-something couple and it wasn’t until they referred to their home country that I realised they were from Norway as opposed to North Dakota. By contrast of course the English stick out a mile, being instantly identifiable by their general embarrassment at existing, their bad teeth, and their propensity for wearing socks with sandals and striped shorts with checked shirts. Obviously, I exclude the writer and (hopefully) his readership from this description!
Much of the advertising in India advises you to ‘give a missed call’ to the provided number. This seems remarkably inefficient unless I am missing something. Ok, so the advertiser obviously gets the punter’s number and can call them back ad infinitum. But they may not then be available to speak or may have taken their business elsewhere by the time you return their call. Why not simply answer the phone and take the enquiry while it’s ‘hot’? That’s what I learnt when I worked in marketing anyway…
In India you often have a choice on menus of ‘Non-Veg’. It is the reverse of the UK. Vegetarian is the norm, and you must specify if you want the dish with meat.
The unexpected mode of transport
The next morning Vino was due to drive me to the Kerala backwaters (a cross between the Florida Everglades and the Norfolk Broads) where I would cruise around on a houseboat for the afternoon, spend the night on board and be picked up again by Vino the following morning. When he arrived to start this journey, I was perplexed to see that the comfortable Hyundai we’d toured around in the previous day had been replaced with a 12-seater minibus – just for me! It transpired that the Hyundai had been parked under a palm tree overnight and Vino had woken to discover the windscreen smashed by a falling coconut. Not the sort of problem you experience in the suburban parts of Newcastle! The bus he’d hurried into service was far less comfortable, but I felt slightly safer in it because of the basic rule of the Indian road that bigger vehicles get priority.
Boarding the houseboat with generous portions
At the turn of the century Kerala was ranked as ‘one of the 50 destinations of a lifetime’ by National Geographic, with particular emphasis on the backwaters, which are amazing. I boarded my houseboat and was introduced to my crew! Driver, chef, and cabin boy. The boat was wonderful, with a forward area where you sit, eat, drink, and watch the world go by. It had three double bed cabins. I observed two English couples simultaneously being boarded onto identical boats with identical retinue. I cannot fathom why the company gave us each a boat to ourselves when none of us would have complained if we had all been put on one boat. They could have cut their overheads by two thirds. This was highlighted further when my chef produced lunch, dinner and breakfast in quantities that would easily have fed all five of us. I felt obliged to have double portions of everything just to make a dent in the huge platters of food.
We chugged round mile after peaceful mile of palm fringed waterway at about 5mph, taking in life on the lakeside and riverbanks. The main activities for the residents of properties ranging from luxurious developments to shacks were washing their clothes and fishing. Without exception these tasks were undertaken by women, and the fishing equipment comprised a short length of bamboo with a simple line and hook attached to it; no bait was involved. I can only assume the local fish are either astoundingly stupid or desperate for entertainment. It was utterly fascinating and incredibly relaxing. A soporific feeling of wellbeing came over me after my large lunch and from the gentle progress, but it was too interesting to fall asleep. When we tied up at the bank and I did eventually retire for the night I asked the crew where they would sleep. They gestured at the open deck, they would bunk up on the seats where I had spent the afternoon and evening, no doubt to protect their precious cargo as he slumbered in his luxurious air-conditioned cabin!
The final destination and the new crisis
The next morning Vino met me back at the port and we set off in the bus. My final destination before returning to Delhi and onward to home was Kovolam, a spread-out town on the south coast looking out over the Indian Ocean, with Sri Lanka just around the coastline and 18 miles across the water. Although less than 100 miles from the backwater port it took us almost six hours to get there, the whole journey being a crawl through the traffic of one small town after another.
My draught beer thirst – sated in Mumbai – had been replaced by a coffee crisis. I had brought with me from home a pack of real coffee and a clever combined cup/cafetière to ensure my daily fix when the real thing was unavailable. It had been a lifesaver on several occasions, but mostly the supply of real coffee in hotels had been ok. However, I had taken a full cup into the car with me for my early morning transfer to Mumbai airport and had managed to leave it in the vehicle. Of course, this coincided with the commencement of a complete drought of proper coffee. Only instant coffee was available in the Kochi teahouse (I guess the clue is in the name) and on the boat, so having endured three coffee-less mornings I asked Vino to stop somewhere where I could get a caffeine fix. We tried two places. I was served more instant (despite assurances that it would be filter), on one occasion in a dirty cup with lukewarm water. I don’t know why I even drank it, as I spent the next 24 hours worrying what new bowel horrors it may introduce. Unfortunately, this coffee free period continued for a further week, and I would not encounter a real bean until my return to Delhi, although I must admit it wasn’t that much of an issue; I adapted to drinking green tea and it made a refreshing change.
The spa hotel and the tummy troubles return
My spa hotel for 6 nights was a fantastic treat after all the travelling, and was even better than I was expecting, which is always a nice surprise. It offered wonderful views over both ocean and a lush green tropical valley. After all the touring and sightseeing I felt thoroughly justified in falling into the embrace of this luxurious establishment, which offered spa treatments and meditation classes, both of which I took advantage of.
Back in Kochi, after a week of unremitting diarrhoea I had finally found a pharmacist who sold me some pills she guaranteed would cure the problem. They worked. Too well. I had now returned to a state of Nepal-like constipation (Chapter 2). Fortunately, on this occasion it only lasted for two or three days after which matters evened themselves out and a happy medium was restored. On the first day in the spa hotel, I was swimming in the wonderfully warm sea and got chatting to an Australian guy, who brought up the subject. I told him of my tummy travails and asked how he had got on. ‘My arse has been running like a bloody tap for weeks mate!’ You can always rely on the Aussies.
The clumsy snake and the European hotel
Walking back up the steps from the beach I encountered a snake about 18 inches long slithering down the opposite way. I was just considering how worried I felt about this in my open sandals (no socks!) and shorts when it suddenly saw me. Its consternation was clearly greater than mine as it immediately lost its balance (for a moment there I was going to say footing) and tumbled head over tail past me down several steps, before, with a slight twitch of embarrassment, resuming its steady slide down to the seafront.
It turned out that the hotel was full of Europeans, mostly English, who had undertaken similar travels to me prior to holing up there, although most of them had only done a couple of weeks. I was rather proud of the fact that many of them looked more exhausted than me. The hotel was certainly a great restorative after travelling this extraordinary country.
Returning to the Delhi airport
Delhi airport was by now beginning to feel like home, this being my fifth visit in as many weeks, with one more to come the next day to catch my flight to Heathrow.
On my last visit the security scanner had picked up the credit card sized slim steel multi-tool I keep in my wallet. I was ordered to display it. When I did, I was surprised to note (hardly ever using it) how lethal it looks, with its sharp serrated edge, and was unsurprised when they said it should have been in my checked baggage and I couldn’t board with it. What did surprise me was that I must have put this item through a dozen or more airport scanners (including those at Delhi several times) and it had never been picked up on before. It does give you pause for thought about airline security. I was loathe to lose it and asked if I could pick it up on my return to the airport. ‘No’, I was told, ‘It will be thrown away’. This irritated me intensely, partly because of the rude abruptness of the answer. ‘Why?’ I asked – it’s always been my favourite question – deciding to argue the toss. It was a query nobody seemed able or willing to answer as I pursued it with doggedness and was referred from one official to another. After several minutes I ended up talking to a very serious looking gun-toting senior security guy who asked me for my passport. ‘Whoops’, I thought, ‘I wonder if I’ve taken this too far’. He examined my document, made a note, and handed it back giving me a beaming smile. ‘I will send it to lost property and you will be able to pick it up from there on your return to the airport’ he said. Now was the moment of truth. I considered the likelihood that it would be sitting there waiting for me to be about 20%. I’ve always been an optimist. In the event I couldn’t even access the lost property office, as it is outside the terminal, which I hadn’t realised before entering, and Delhi International has a tight security system where you must show your credentials to armed police to access the building. I didn’t want to risk not being allowed re-admittance so had to leave it.
I had a great final night in Delhi with my friend/brother/angel Amir (Chapter 1) and took an afternoon flight back to Heathrow. Unfortunately, it was delayed, and I missed my connection to Newcastle, which was the last flight of the day, so had to rebook for a flight the next morning. Ironic that after all the travelling through the organised chaos of the sub-continent my only serious transport delay should be back in the UK.
Back in the UK
I sought out cheap lodgings and got a room at Ye Olde George in nearby Colnbrook, Slough. This turned out to be a perfect reintroduction to the UK – a slightly grotty local but with a comfortable bed and real ale! A couple of months ago this delay would probably have stressed me out, but now I was remarkably sanguine and accepting of it. The re-booked flight was eye-wateringly expensive. Maybe I’ll be able to claim for that and the accommodation on my travel insurance, maybe I won’t, but heigh ho. Because it was a ticket purchased within 24 hours of the flight this entitled me to use the British Airways lounge for breakfast, where I was greeted with bottomless proper coffee and all you can eat bacon sandwiches. Ah, it was good to be back in Blighty!