India: Kerala – Hippies, Hikers, Hookahs and Harems

Kerala (Trivandrum – Kollam – Alappuzha – Kovalam)

A sedate cruise through the Keralan backwaters, the ‘Hugging Mother’ roadshow and a talented, fortune-telling parakeet completed our introduction to India.
January 2003

Exchange rate: (£1 = Rs75)
India evokes powerful emotions, often split second love or hate. For some travellers, twenty-four hours is enough to send them sprinting back to the nearest airport, vowing never to set foot on Indian soil ever again. For others, months can pass as they wander aimlessly through the country on a spiritual journey to ‘find themselves’ before eventually disappearing into an ashram, never to be seen again.

With some trepidation, I boarded the plane to Trivandrum, Kerala. I was apprehensive of the India painted by other travellers we have met: desperate poverty, streams of beggars, relentless touts, scam aficionados, confidence tricksters, thieves on every corner, corrupt gurus, money seeking sadhus, horrendous air pollution, bouts of diarrhoea, filthy rooms and endless train journeys.

The plane touched down with a bump and my fears faded as we seamlessly passed through immigration, changed travellers cheques and secured a taxi at the pre-paid taxi voucher counter. Outside the arrivals hall, I stepped back into a world where ancient, beautifully maintained white Ambassador cars served as taxis, women were wrapped in colourful saris and men wore lungis or mundus. A lungi is a coloured piece of cloth sewn up like a tuge at one end and pleated at the waist to give a snug fit. A mundu is similar but white.

At first glance, Southern India wasn’t that disimilar from Sri Lanka, a relaxed, sanitised version of India. Our first mission of the day was to take a one hour train from Trivandrum to Kollam (Quilon) – easier said than done. Indian Railways is the lifeblood of the country, employing 1.6 million staff, making it the world’s biggest employer and moving eleven million passengers a day. As an institution, it embodies many facets of everyday Indian life. All we had to do was understand the complicated timetables in "Train Times" (we had not been able to buy a copy of "Trains At A Glance" for love nor money), and decipher the myriad of ticket classes. Help is at hand though through the website www.indianrailway.com. Armed with train and railhead numbers/codes from the timetable, we could use the excellent search facility to display how many seats were available on individual trains on any given day.

"Train Times" was a rather odd publication. It didn’t supply us with a key to ticket class abbreviations or give class definitions (that would have been way too useful). Instead, there was a section called "Railway Rulings – Passengers Ought To Know," stating in minute detail procedures to be followed for cancellations, failure of air-con equipment, carriage of personal luggage, concessions (none of which we qualify for) and the all important ruling on ‘corpses’. "Dead bodies are not allowed to be carried into passenger coaches. But a body can be conveyed in the Brake Van when properly secured in an Air-Tight Coffin." Well, I’m glad they’ve cleared that one up. I was relieved to know I wouldn’t be sharing a sleeper with someone’s dead aunt destined for a funeral pyre in Varanasi!

Kollam lies 65km north of Trivandrum, surrounded by coconut palms and cashew nut plantations. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? In reality, it conforms to the blueprint of every Indian town: polluted, noisy, over-populated, broken pavements and open sewers. Billed as the southern gateway to the Keralan backwaters, we boarded the DTPC (District Tourism Promotion Council) ferry for an eight-hour cruise to Alappuzha costing Rs300 each. No wonder there were so few Indian families on the boat. If you’re on a tight budget, take the train or bus to Alappuzha instead for about a tenth of the cost, and use the local ferries on trips to Kottayam for a couple of rupees as an alternative.

The ferry chugs leisurely across the network of shallow inland lakes, down coconut fringed canals and past tiny settlements surviving on coir (coconut fibre) making, fishing, boat building and toddy tapping. The waterways are peppered by strange, wooden constructions known as cantilevered Chinese fishing nets. The net is stretched across the structure and a bright light hung in the centre. When the net is lowered, the bright light is shone into the water to attract the fish. A simple and novel idea.

The backwaters have a timeless quality: fishing boats powered by men punting with bamboo poles, boats loaded with pyramids of cashew nuts, divers wearing nothing but a mask, searching for mussels in the shallows and women washing clothes and utensils in the murky water. The only occasional unpleasant factor is the children screeching "One pen, one pen, give pen" from the canal banks.

We reached Alappuzha in the dark and were slow to catch on that it is important to locate your backpack before the boat docks if you want decent accommodation. Hotel Arcadia was our first choice and already full. We hot footed it next to Hotel Raj followed by a stream of backpackers. The guesthouse was a sad affair – grubby rooms, dubious mattresses and a loud Hindi (could have been Tamil) soundtrack from the neighbouring shack.

At dinner we ordered the Indian non-alcholic favourite – lime soda. Squeezed lime juice, soda and either sugar or salt. The glasses were brought over with just the lime juice – the soda and sugar are added separately. Much to Tom’s annoyance, I spooned in sugar, stirring it vigourously into the lime and then poured in the soda. As soon as the soda hit the lime, a chemical reaction occurred causing the liquid to bubble upwards like a mini version of Mount Etna, staining half the tablecloth. Tom reprimanded me for making such a mess as I hastily tried to cover the ever expanding wet patch with napkins. Demonstrating the proper way to concoct a perfect lime soda, note that I was to watch carefully as I might learn something, Tom added his sugar, then the soda and repeated the volcano effect much to his chagrin. Doh! I had the last laugh after all.

 


Trivandrum is the capital of Kerala, touted in our guide book as "one of India’s most pedestrian-friendly cities." This statement caused great amusement – if I ever find a pedestrian friendly city or town in India, I’ll let you know.

To return to Trivandrum, we caught our first ‘super deluxe’ bus in India. ‘Super deluxe’ is a misnomer; the air-con, streamlined vehicle with tinted windows and plush seats never materialised. Instead, an unroadworthy steel wreck, identical to any other clapped out Indian bus apart from a subtle difference: "Limited stops" had been painted on the front and side of the bus.

Inside were cramped seats designed for midgets, iron bars across the glassless windows and metal shutters. I thought Sri Lankan bus drivers had been reckless, but Indian drivers are truly on a suicide business. I don’t think adorning a Ganesh statue in garlands of flowers on the dashboard is going to save the bus from a fatal accident. Rule number one, never sit near the front of the bus, it is better not to witness how close the bus comes to being scrap metal unless you fancy raising your blood pressure to unhealthy levels. It is ironic to think we were travelling during the heavily promoted "Road Safety Week". The Government had completely wasted its money. Train travel is safer, although there have been two accidents on the Southern India Railway in the last few weeks. Eighteen people died in the last accident caused by an derailment. The rail workers responsible fled the accident scene and authorities are still trying to track them down.

Our main reason for revisiting Trivandrum was to check out the ‘Hugging Mother’ (Matha Amrithanandamayi) roadshow being held at an ashram 6km from the city centre. Thousands flock to be hugged by one of India’s few female gurus, preaching a message of equality for men and women and promoting the concept of ‘universal motherhood’. This gospel seems admirable in a country where women are perceived as a drain on their families and marriage is usually a social contract between two families rather than a union based on love. A woman is expected to be a homemaker above all else and produce bouncing baby boys for her in-laws. I was ready to be embraced and feel the love!

What I wasn’t prepared for was the blatant commercialism accompanying the teachings. I’d first heard about the ‘Hugging Mother’ when Louis Theroux, a British journalist, took a trip to India to investigate the ever growing population of gurus who enticed foreigners to part with their cash in return for spiritual soul-searching and enlightenment. Out of all of his reports, the ‘Hugging Mother’ was portrayed as the most genuine – even Louis was close to tears after being held in her arms.

At the entrance to the ashram, I was shocked to see large billboards plastered in pictures of the ‘Hugging Mother’ sponsoring banks, milk, insurance and furniture. Down the sandy alley leading to the ashram were stalls flogging ‘Hugging Mother’ radios tuned to her own radio station, subscriptions to her magazine, an array of fridge magnets, stickers or framed photos, balm to ease your physical pain as used by the ‘Hugging Mother’, or if you’re feeling peckish, a slice of her favourite fruit. As if that wasn’t enough, I could purchase the unbearable, twangy Indian music being broadcast while queueing to be hugged. And what a queue it was, segregated into men and women. This was a serious commerical enterprise, generating thousands of rupees based on one woman who for a split second in your life hugs you.

Her entourage of Westerners, I nicknamed them the ‘white ghosts’, floated past us dressed in thin, white baggy shirts and trousers, their faces vacant, bereft of emotion. Some chopped vegetables to feed the thousands who would queue for hours, some stood on the stage to protect the ‘Hugging Mother’ from being overwhelmed by a sea of people.

Instead of queueing, we moved towards the stage to catch a glimpse of this remarkable, diminutive woman who would hug the masses for hours on end, briefly resting her had on each person’s head as she pulled them close. At the pivotal moment, I knew I didn’t need a hug to validate who I am. I just don’t have the blind faith to accept this is all being done out of the kindness of one woman’s heart. Any good intentions were lost in a flood of money-making schemes. To remember my first experience of a guru, I bought a kitsch photo framed in bright gold, red and green, adding to the burgeoning roadshow’s coffers. In a way, it summed up my experience. I left as I arrived – a skeptic.

Having not felt the love in the room, it was time for a more mystical approach. Only in the rich fabric of Indian life could you stumble upon a wizened, old man crouching on a dusty street, reading passer-bys fortunes using a well trained bright green parakeet and a talented guinea pig. It was either a guinea pig or a rat. For a fee of Rs5, the parakeet would hop down from its perch out of the confines of its claustrophobic cage and select cardboard packets, discarding each one by tossing it aside with its beak. Finally, the parakeet would come across a packet worthy of being presented to an image of the Hindu God Shiva before delivering the packet into the old guy’s hands. During this performance, the old guy never stopped mumbling to his client. Opening the packet, he revealed a small picture of a man who distinctly resembled Jesus. The parakeet was shooed back into its cage – performance over. The old man beckoned me over to have my fortune told by the guinea pig but I wanted the parakeet – obviously the bird’s cosmic energy had been exhausted. It was a shame the old man didn’t speak English.

 


Don’t get sucked into avoiding Kovalam, 16km south of Trivandrum – it’s portrayed as the Costa Del Sol of Southern India by guide books and travellers alike. Okay, there has been unplanned hotel expansion and plastic waste has built up in a few areas, but it’s hardly a concrete jungle. Also, beach hawkers aren’t as persistent as they are painted. We were not hassled on the beach every five minutes. There are countless back alleys to explore, stalls to browse round, Ayurvedic centres offering massage, hot oil treatment and yoga, and restaurants showing the latest movie releases every evening. It’s not for everyone but we realised quickly that if a place offers an escape from the real India, i.e. pollution, crowds, noise, poverty and grime, jump at the chance to enjoy it while you can. I was beginning to understand why some travellers intended to stay a week and ended up temporary residents for a month. In India, it’s sometimes easier to exist in a peaceful haven rather than make an effort to leave.

During our stay, we attended a performance of Kathakali, a traditional dance of Kerala dating back to the 17th century. Half the fun is not in the intricate eye, hand and feet movements – I admit to falling asleep during the actual dance – but in observing the dancers spend two hours preparing themselves. It was fascinating to watch them paint their faces with great care in luminous make up and put on their costumes. Their faces were treated like an artist’s canvas; each stroke of the brush added a new dimension to their character. A glutenous rice substance was used to stick white cardboard shapes onto their faces for a 3D effect. The most bizarre part of their costume was a gigantic tutu created from plastic sacks being scrunched along a piece of material tied around their waists and covered with a skirt-like garment.

We couldn’t relax and hide on the beach forever. It was time to end our tour of Kerala and hit the temple trail in Tamil Nadu.

 


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