November 10, 2009
I am flying on the manic side of our India bi-polar experience today as T and I speed south on the “superfast” Kerala Express through the southern jungle. Our bunkmates on the Bangalore to Cochin train last night convinced us to skip Cochin altogether and head straight for the white sand beaches and palms of Varkala and Kovalam. They suggested we take a bus south, but only a Volvo bus. The other KSRTC buses, they assured us, we would not enjoy. I am silently thanking them for their good advice as I, Varkala bound, peer out our window at the rice paddies, rivers and thick green jungle. I spy a woman dressed in a bright orange sari with a turquoise shawl and a pink parasol walking up a red clay road and feel as if I am watching some PBS documentary, not experiencing this in real life.
The conductor shook us awake at 4:10 a.m. We were at the end of the Bangalore line in Ernakulam. We emerged into the dark station in a pouring rain surrounded by men in lunghis, sort of a tablecloth wrapped around the waist and then pulled up above the knees to make puffy pantaloons. A tout latched on to us, promising to locate a cab that would take us to a 24-hour coffee bar, as Tuck had asked. We were a little suspicious of him, though, given past experiences, and eluded him to go splashing through the substantial puddles to the cab stand. We snagged our own rickshaw driver and said we wanted to go to the 24-hour Coffee Day in town. He looked puzzled and uttered the now predictable line, “It is not possible, sir.” There ensued a conference with several other rickshaw drivers, but the result was the same. Nothing is open at this hour.
We bailed. Across the drive to the train station were strings of lights around little vendors’ stalls. Blue plastic tarps strung from trees provided rain cover, and we made a beeline for these. I saw Tuck heading for a vortex of brown water swirling down an open hole and shouted to him. I had seen some of these ungrated drains yesterday and thought what a great way to break a leg. T, of course, had already spotted the man-trap and had diverted.
We huddled in under the canopy with quite a few other refugees and rethought our strategy for the next leg of the trip. The conclusion? “Let’s get some coffee; then we’ll figure it out.” The tout had spotted us by this time and brought over one of his stable of rickshaw drivers. They grabbed our bags and started loading T’s pack into the back seat. Even though we’ve seen up to ten people crowded into these little motorcycles with a canopy, I was not willing to believe that all our luggage and us were going to fit. Sure enough, the driver grabbed my suitcase and started to heft it up onto the roof. “No, no, no!” I yelled. There was no way I wanted my only dry clothes left exposed to the driving rain. The tout and the driver looked stunned that anyone would object, but when they saw I wasn’t going to change my mind the tout quickly switched gears and called over another rickshaw that was set up like a lilliputian pick-up truck. The bags fit into the back and we happily climbed into our seat.
The ugly cement, flat-topped buildings of this section of Cochin were mostly covered in black mold. My wretch factor was rising fast as far as finding a hotel in Cochin was concerned, but that had been only the vaguest of possibilities anyway. As we buzzed through the lanes, I switched into observation mode, enjoying the strangeness, and silently making the decision that I knew T was making too – we will leave this unprepossessing city and head for the south as our bunkmates had recommended.
Things seem to work out for us in strange ways here, but never in the ways we expect. We are both coming to accept that plans are only pointers on the crooked roads of our days. Our rickshaw driver has us under his care for this brief moment in time, and though we can’t communicate with language, he has assessed our needs and sensitivities and come up with a solution. We are dropped minutes later in the circular drive of a marble clad business hotel with an elegant, and distinctly non-traditional Indian lobby. They have an open restaurant and we are graciously welcomed and seated, our bags attended to by a porter. At 4:30 am we are, of course, the only patrons, but the staff on duty rise to the occasion and fulfill our orders; coffee and chocolate mousse for both of us. What a great start to the day!
I have slid two guide books out of my suitcase and T and I are studying them. Our different approaches to travel are expressing themselves, but we have achieved a harmony that honors both our styles. T much the planner and executer, I resisting decisions and wanting to float like a leaf in a brook, waiting until I see a comfortable bank to come to rest. Both our styles have their advantages and pitfalls; together they seem to be greater than the sum of their parts. Tuck’s quick reactivity has gotten us out of some jams and into some good luck. Need a hotel reservation – he is ready with his jail-broken iPhone, Airtel India sim card, and magical internet access and dialing before I have time to object that, well, maybe we might like something else better if we could just scope things out first. There is a reason I am often checking in after dark.
And here we are now, skimming the edge of the Arabian sea on our Royal Enfield Bullets, happier than two lost Americans have a right to be. We arrived at the Sea Breeze hotel in Varkala, way down on the southern tip of India yesterday afternoon. Vani the hostess, Sunil the manager and Rani the general factotum have received us graciously and presented us with a wonderful second story room, our balcony overlooking the palms and sea a few hundred feet away. (The price –$16 a day each.) We are the honored, and only, guests. We sat on the rooftop for a chicken biriyani and a paneer tikki masala, talked to the manager, and moments later were examining our strange Royal Enfields, whose lifetime appears to have begun in the days of the Raj.
After our careening cab ride from the train station down an exceedingly narrow and windy road at unfathomable speeds, I am downright terrified to be on this ancient black machine with its tank-like heft and tractor-like gear box. In true English style, everything is backwards – the rear brake is on the left side, the gear shift on the right. You lift up for first instead of down. It has a kick-starter that requires an engineering degree and the patience of Job to operate. And when it does work, you risk been launched skywards from the recoil if you don’t remove your foot from the lever fast enough. Then there are the no brakes and no lights, no documents and no helmet. I feel like a Roger Miller song, no phone, no pool, no pets . . .
Still the bikes, with their good looks and pulsing exhaust offer us undeniable street cred. And no-one can see the bruises on my legs where the overweight beast has nicked me time and again. Everyone waves and stops to offer advice on how to kick start the thing properly, how to fix the broken lights, and so on.
We park the bikes by a little cement garage-like structure in the red mud across form the shrimp hatchery under construction. The construction workers have adopted us and seem over-amused at our klutziness. The little old man who sits cross-legged in front of the garage each day trimming screens tells us by pantomime and broken English that the even older owner has been staying up all night to watch our bikes he is so concerned they will be stolen. He advises a chain and padlock. After living with these kind people in this communist state, I feel as if I need to re-evaluate every preconception I have ever had about anyone and anything. The kindness is just overwhelming. I feel unworthy.