The train from Trivandrum to Aluva was pretty straight forward. It was hot and i sat by the window watching more of this wonderful country pass by me. Whenever i get on a train or a bus here, i love to hang out of the window as much as possible, breathing in this country as i carve my way through it. The sights and sounds and smells and other sensual pleasures i absorb as much as possible, and rarely a minute goes by when something else makes me think ‘Bloody hell, I’m actually in India’!
None more so do i get this feeling though as when I’m at an Indian bus station. You see, when you are trying to get on a train in India, it’s generally a pretty simple task. You ask the ticket clerk the number of the train and if you’re lucky he’ll also give you the right platform number. But generally, if unsure, you can find someone to ask and before you know it, you’re trundling on your way. Indian bus stations are a different ordeal entirely.
I arrived at Aluva, found out that a taxi to Munnar, my final destination of that day, would cost me in the region of 2500 rupees. This sounds a lot of money, right? And to me, it was way out of my price range. 2500 rupees is about 30 quid. 30 quid for a taxi ride? Not too expensive. Aluva to Munnar takes about 5 hours!!!! 30 quid for a 5 hour taxi ride sounds like the greatest bargain since i paid just over 50p for a 5 hour train journey a week before! But knowing a bus would cost me about a pound and that it’d take about the same amount of time, it was to the bus station that i headed.
Standing on the road, looking at 50 odd buses, trying to think which one might be going my way, i decided to ask the ticket man for a pointer. “The bus arrives at 3 and will pull up in the middle” (of the forecourt) i was told. ‘Wonderful’, i thought, how easy this is gonna be… Ya first mistake in India is EVER muttering those words about anything. When someone tells you something, whether it’s what time something is to arrive or whether they are male or female, you have to, as my friend recently said, ask around the answer. I have deduced it takes 5 extra questions once the answer has been given to you to get the real answer. And by ‘real answer’ i mean the answer that you can believe 75% of. This is India. So, i wait for the bus to come in and i start noticing that every bus looks the same and every destination is written in Hindi. ‘But’, i think to myself, ‘it’ll reveal itself’ (as the bus i need to get on). This is India after all and even though it takes an eternity to get the right info, things also seem to just happen the right way in India. Jugad, they call it – or It Just Works Out is another way of putting it. Anyway, so it gets to 3 and I’m anxiously standing there waiting for this bus, looking at every one that pulls in, completely ignorant as to which one it could be. I ask a guy next to me if he knows which bus is going to Munnar. He says he doesn’t know but he’ll point it out when he see’s it. 10 seconds later, he say’s, hurriedly, “That one” and points to a bus flying past us on its way to the mountains, one Englishman short of a full quota. And off i run… and run… and run…shouting to the bus ‘You’re an Englishman short, you’re a bloody Englishman shooooort…’ And i swear, as I’m running, I’m thinking of what i said above about when someone tells you something, having to ask another 5 questions to get to 75% of the answer!! And i’m thinking, if i get on this bus and it’s going somewhere different, I’m gonna go back to that bloke who told me it was this bus and blow ‘im up!! But the door swings open, i shout Munnar, a guy smiles at me, probably not just at how mental i look chasing this bus, covered in its trailing dust but also at the thought of how I’m gonna get on a moving bus (a week ago, my recently departed travel buddy and i had to perform a similar stunt and being behind her, i couldn’t help think she looked like a Hippo doing a bunny hop trying to jump onto a moving vehicle!). Anyway, i leapt aboard, like a pouncing Cheetah and soon was spitting bus dust from between my teeth, on the way to the AMAZINGLY beautiful hill-station of Munnar…
Before i left England, i had decided that if there was one destination on my trip in India that i had to head for, above all else, it was Munnar. The pictures in the books i was reading about India made this place seem almost surreal in its beauty, shots of lakes and mountains shrouded in mist, tea plantations more verdant than any countryside or alpine postcard and serenity everywhere. Well, this being India, the serenity wasn’t so apparent, but on my way up to this mystical place, i saw the mist and the verdant in droves. As i said, i love to hang out of the windows of the vehicles I’m in, breathing in India, absorbing it. And as we swallowed up little mountain villages on our way up, up, up, and i swallowed flies the size of footballs, the light faded little by little and this crazy white man, hanging out of the rear window, feeling the cool mountain air rushing through his thinning locks, was a sight for every Indian climbing aboard. “Doesn’t he know it’s winter”, i could see them thinking. But as shutter by shutter went down around the bus and people huddled under jumpers and pashmina’s, i sat there, feeling the mountain atmosphere of India fill my soul. Another reason i sit at the back of the bus in India, hanging out the window, is so i don’t have to see what’s coming our way. Lets just say that i fully understand the reason why road deaths in India are the highest in the World. A bus travelling at 600 m.p.h will attempt to overtake a lorry on a completely blind bend in the knowledge that, if something comes the other way, either the oncoming vehicle will move or we will crush it to death. What the driver doesn’t take into the account is the sheer drop that we will inevitably race towards, with oncoming vehicle under our tyres, stopping any steering from taking place, as well as the fact that as the bus we are travelling on is 113 years old, we will die from the lack of protection due to it having been bandaged up over the years with newspaper and prayer.
This is ya average Indian Bus…
Seriously, every time i get on a bus, i honestly don’t know if i will get off again by stepping down from the gangway or by being thrown through the window towards the rubbish that this country is built upon, at terminal velocity. Jugad, i tell myself.
Anyway, i get to Munnar, having taken in some of the most amazing mountain scenery i have ever seen and start the process of finding my next travel buddy. She has a room, so i don’t have to worry about traipsing around looking at beds wondering whether the bed bugs are just settling in or leaving town. As i spot a rabble making noise on a balcony, i head northwards assuming it must include the tiny Pole i am meeting. It doesn’t. But they are expecting me. So i pull up a seat and start chatting to Perry, an Israeli and two young German boys, clearly high on Indian chariss and other substances, slightly less Indian! Immediately i am asked by Perry if i am romantically linked the The Pole. When i tell him that’s a negative, he starts to tell me his feelings for this person he met a night earlier and all of as sudden i am embroiled in a conversation about love, lust and broken hearts. I immediately take to Perry due to his unerring honesty and the fact that he too has had his heart broken and so knows of the feelings that my heart and mind are dealing with. I also take to one of the Germans too, a hedonist if ever i saw one whose dream is for 1 billion people to take Acid with him so he can enlighten this proportion of the World. I hope he succeeds, i tell him, but this time, i won’t be one of the billion. Anyway, the Pole returns, we spend a cordial evening getting to know my new acquaintances, help them smoke some of that Indian goodness and arrange to see them again in Gokarna for the Rainbow Gathering we are to attend for Christmas.
The next day, myself and The Pole head to the tea-plantations on the most relaxing and scenic of walks, armed with a stick for beating the ground to warn the Cobras we are coming and some chocolate to charm the tea-picking ladies with. Another trait that India has is its propensity for its people to ask for a photograph with you. My face adorns over a thousand walls in the houses of families across this country, grinning like a buffoon with total strangers. And you know, i don’t care in the slightest. I find it hilarious. But if there is a group of ten people, each one will take a photo so as the previous photographer doesn’t miss out on having that ‘shot’ with you. So you watch the birdy ten times and hope that none of them have passed on head lice!
After walking to Munnar Centre, a small, bustling market town, selling the usual crap that every single shop in India sells, we trundled back to our hotel, via a conversation with a couple who weren’t a couple but who were a martial arts fanatic and a woman with Jesus in her heart, to which my travel Pole responded with a silence that drove the Jesus lover away (note to self; if anyone ever says anything to which you can’t think of anything to say, start singing loudly, armpit fart, do whatever comes to mind, just don’t let the sudden void be filled with silence). The uncomfortable quiet could be felt in Hungary.
The next day, after some stellar food at a nearby hotel for about a pound 50, our second great meal there in 12 hours, we embarked on a 28 hour journey to Gokarna and OM Beach. Yes, that was 28 HOURS. However, if it wasn’t for one amazing Indian man who took it upon himself to get us here, we would never have made it. You see, getting a train in India is a trickier task than you realise. You can’t just turn up and pay for a ticket on the day of travel cos chances are their wont be any room. And i don’t mean just a seat, i mean any room full stop.
See? And we didn’t really count on this being a problem, getting on a train. But we also didn’t think that this being Christmas, every seat on every train would be alloted for the next 10 days at least. However, having been tipped off by our Israeli friends that their was an area manager at the station who managed to get them on the next train, it was for this man we headed. And boy, did he pull out all the stops and then some to get us on a train that day. IN England, you NEVER get customer service like this. You never get customer service full stop anymore, but this guy put any person back home who provides a service of any kind to anyone, to shame. I don’t know how he did it, i don’t know how many poor families Christmas’ were ruined by us stealing their seats at the last-minute and i don’t wanna know. All i do know is that we got on a sleeper train, bound for somewhere near where we were headed and that was enough for us.
Again, this was a place (Gokarna) that my trusty travel bible insisted i go to. This time, i wasn’t disappointed. What you see is exactly what it was like every day. From Christmas eve until the 29th, i stayed on this beach, paying less than 2.50 for a room per night and spending about the same every day on food and water. I meditated on the rocks at sunset, watched big crabs make their journeys to and from the shore and generally lazed about like a lummox! I felt tanned and healthy and my mind was starting to put its troubles to its rear as life started to feel like it was worth being part of again.
The best part of these few days though, apart from the wicked hand-made sequined blanket i bought in the charming town of Gokarna, knocked down from 1500 to 850 rupees, therefore depriving two children of their meals for the next 2 days (but it really is a BEAUTIFUL blanket), was the people i met. Funny Jews, charming Englishmen and feisty Frenches, the complete works!! The Rainbow Gathering didn’t happen (thankfully, i might look like a hippy but i wash regularly and don’t wear awful clothes…) but i did hit up the spot it was on, Paradise Beach, where here i met some madly interesting folk. An Englishman i spent time with lives on the same spot on this beach, as part of a li’l community, for 9 months of the year. He rises at about 5.30 in the a.m and sleeps at around 8.30/9 in the eve. In between, he relaxes in his hammock, maybe makes a coffee, maybe swims, eats very little but healthy food and generally lets life take him where it wants to. I found this initially hard to understand, “…it’s like you are giving up on life”, i said. But then, Monks, Sadhu’s, Guru’s, people of a spiritual nature do the same and it’s accepted, ‘so’, i thought, ‘who says this shouldn’t be acceptable?’ as he had me by the throat up against a coconut tree. It’s not a life i would choose, but there is no stress, no people in his life who lie and cheat (some readers take note!) and so cause him harm, no pressure to do what is expected of him and no rules to follow. I’m moving in Friday…
Also in Gokarna, there is a li’l legion of Westerners who gathered at the Dolphin Cafe and again, these people proved my tiny little mind wrong of its conclusions about them. You see, i always feel that, when i meet Westerners abroad who choose a somewhat nomadic lifestyle, that they are escaping from something, maybe a trauma, a particular situation, the law, THEMSELVES. And i always think that by running away from their problems, it makes them weaker in the long run and unable to handle life’s pressures that maybe are essential for us to face if we are to continue living in some form of society. And so i broached this subject with some of the people i thought this of and found out that i was too quick to judge. Sure, many of them choose to leave, lets say, England, due to the pressures of society or the rules they have to live by but they leave primarily because they just don’t want to be part of ‘The Rat Race’, they don’t want to have to ‘own’ things, they don’t want to have to ‘fit in’ to societies codes of conduct and so they go and live on a beach for 6 months and the mountains for 6 months, they find work to support their 3 quid a day lifestyle and they live happily and without the stress of modern-day society, without all the lying and cheating (sense a pattern here?!!), hurt and injustice, rules and regulations. I can easily see the attraction and though it’s not quite for me, ‘judge not lest thee be judged’ i left saying.
One man whom i spoke to fascinated me more than anyone though, a man who goes by the name of Jordan. This guy, after being broken-hearted at the end of a relationship by a cheating whorebag(!), decided that he would do something extraordinary with his life. Maybe the mind-set he was in made him do this, maybe it forced him to re-think his life. What did the fellow do? He walked, from Canada to Mexico, over 1,800 miles in 10 months! He raised over $15000 dollars via a website on which members of the public donate cash of any amount, be it a dollar or a thousand dollars, for random projects or adventures that random people are undertaking (www.kickstarter.com i believe this particular website is although there are others too). This man had never stayed in a tent in his life. Never done anything much on his own, besides the usual activities… Yet, the trauma of a broken heart made him do something amazing. And along the way he interviewed people about their love lives, stories of love lost and broken hearts, took millions of photos and is now about to write a book of his journey and his findings. This man’s story touched me. It made me realise that good CAN come out of bad, that happiness CAN triumph over sadness and that out of the darkness CAN and WILL come light, if you search for it. This is the website (http://www.walkingtomexico.com/) If you ever see a book about this trip, support this man and buy it. Oh, and the woman who broke his heart? Unhappy, in another relationship, making the same mistakes as before whilst the recipient of the broken heart is living life to the full, meeting lots of new people and having adventures he would never have had before… so there, whorebag!!!
On the 29th, i was to leave the comfort of a travel buddy and embark, again, on a journey of epic proportions that would include missing a train but finding a true heart, realising i CAN eat train food without poopering myself and that i could have a conversation with someone who only speaks Hindi about nothing in particular whilst being 52 hours into a 58 hour non-stop journey!
My time in Gokarna however and with these people really set me up for the rest of my trip. I saw first hand that life can really be lived without the oppressive rules, not just of society, but of what those close to us expect. I realised that true happiness can come from the most unlikely sources and out of the darkest situations. I understand that a pestering beach bead seller is actually just a man who longs to love and I now know that i look Hotter than July with a tan and a six-pack. But more than anything, i have had one of my and life’s most pressing questions answered by my newest Israeli friend …
Yes, every Jew DOES love Seinfeld…