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James

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Kumily to Varkala [Mar. 10th, 2016|08:58 pm]
James
On my last night in Kumily I had dinner with Ketz and Ami, an Indian couple from London I met on the safari in the tiger reserve. We met at a restaurant called Sandra's and had a veritable banquet between us, the highlight of which undoubtedly was a spinach paneer dish which I'll definitely investigate when I get back to England. Oh, and Aloo Gobi (potato and cauliflower) but that's a given. Ketz and Ami were good company.

Next day I woke bright and early and did my last bits of packing before walking in to Kumily town centre to catch a bus. There were about ten rickety buses standing on the forecourt and I found one with 'Kottayam' written on the front. It was an old local-style tin-can of a bus, with no glass in the windows - which I was grateful for as the breeze helped overcome travel sickness as we slalomed our way down mountain paths. The bus stopped at lots of bus-stops and people got on and off. More on than off it seemed. It was very crowded at one point and I noticed that all of the men sit at the back and the women sit or stand at the front, even if there are spare seats at the back. The four hour trip cost just 84 rupees.

Bus-rides in India are exhausting. You feel every pot-hole in the road and it's difficult to sleep as you hurtle around corners quickly and the driver blasts his horn incessantly. I felt like I really wanted to sleep but not a chance! We passed stunning valleys and drove through bustling towns and I was amazed at how many churches I saw. I know India is a hotch-potch of different cultures and religions but I didn't realise Christianity was so widespread in Kerala (hardly a trace in Rajasthan).

The reason I wanted to leave early is that the next leg of my trip, the ferry to Alleppey, leaves at 1pm, 3.30pm or 5pm. If I could catch the 1pm ferry then I stood a really good chance of arriving in Varkala before it got dark. But because I managed to catch a bus almost straight away and we made such good progress, I arrived in Kottayam at 11.30am. I stood a good chance of making the midday ferry.

Incidentally, an interesting fact about Kottayam. India has the largest iliterate population in the world and yet Kerala has a literacy rate of nearly 94%, staggering for Asia. Kottayam has 100% literacy.

I took a rickshaw from Kottayam train station to the jetty, but it seemed to be the wrong place. It was a canal overgrown with lily pads, standing in which was a wooden boat that looked like it could sink at any minute. There was no ticket office (or indeed any building of any sort), just a boat in a canal, next to a field. "Ferry to Alleppey?" I asked doubtfully to a man who was sat on the gangplank. It was.

I got on and after ten minutes and a three point turn in the canal - or actually a 33 point turn would be more accurate - we slowly chugged our way through the lily pads. We went down quaint canals that were lined with wooden bungalows and colourful clothes blowing gently on washing lines. It would have been much easier for me to get a direct bus to Alleppey this morning but I wanted to do this ferry trip. The backwaters trip from Fort Cochin was enjoyable but left me a little bit underwhelmed and this was more interesting with more to see. We stopped at numerous other jetties and people jumped on or off, mainly ancient looking fishermen or stooped old women carrying bags of vegetables. The canal opened up in to a huge lake and after two hours we drifted in to Alleppey. The trip cost just 15 rupees (15 pence!) but this isn't a tourist attraction, it's how the locals here get about.

It was only 2pm and things were going smoother than I dared imagine. I'd researched train times from Alleppey to Varkala and they were at 4.30pm, 5.40pm and 6.15pm. When I was planning the days travel the night before, I never dreamed I'd make the first train. It was too good to be true though. The first train was running an hour late which meant I had about three hours to kill.

Not to worry, near the station was a rustic looking place with a big blue 'restaurant' sign outside. I entered and bought myself a cold Sprite and asked whether I could have a menu. "No no" said the man. I looked around and saw an Indian man eating food, so said "can I have food please?" (doing the universally recognised sign language of shoveling food in to my mouth). "No no" he said. I could see a man in a kitchen, a diner eating food and there was a sign that said restaurant... all the clues were there but apparently I couldn't get food. I didn't mind to be truthful as the food I saw looked very basic which rightly or wrongly made me suspect it might be a candidate for an upset stomach. I bought a packet of bourbon creams and three pieces of peanut brittle instead and went to read my book on the platform.

My train ticket cost just 50 rupees. It was a two hour journey and my ticket enabled me to sit anywhere in the back ten carriages in economy. There were lots of open compartments filled entirely by Indian men, half a dozen fans whirring on the ceiling. There was no glass in the windows, just bars, which made it look a bit like a prison cell on wheels. I sat opposite a man who looked like Trevor MacDonald and we began to pull away. I was glad for the breeze as the carriage had a sweaty smell (not surprising as most of the men inside had taken their shoes off) and when the train was stationery there was a distinct waft of urine as the toilet emptied itself on the tracks.

I read my book and quite enjoyed the train-ride, watching the countryside go past. At one point we stopped at a station and a few moments later a woman walked past, holding a cute little girl. She held her hand out to me pleadingly. I had some 5 rupee coins in my wallet, so gave her those (15 rupees I think). The woman was really grateful and the little girl waved to me. So I waved back and then a little game of 'wave tennis ensued as her mum walked away down the carriage and me and the little girl took it in turns waving to each other. 'What a nice moment' I thought as I continued my book. A few minutes later I caught them in my peripheral vision, walking past on the platform. The women deliberately stopped in front of my window and the little girl waved again. haha, how nice. I suddenly remembered I had half a packet of bourbon creams I bought earlier, so I fished them out of my rucksack and reached through the iron bars in the window to pass them to the little girl. She took the packet, pulled one of the biscuits out, broke it in two and began licking the chocolate. We waved each other goodbye for the second time and five minutes later the train slowly pulled away. As we began to gather pace I noticed the mother and daughter, stood at the steps to the exit, waving to me! They'd waited especially to wave me off. The little girl shouted "bye bye", showing off her English and I actually found myself welling up! It's little things like that that make travel so memorable.

We pulled in to Varkala in the dark. I hate arriving at a new place in the dark as it's impossible to get a feel for the place. In big cities it can feel quite intimidating too, but not so much when you can hear the lapping of waves from nearby. I chose a hotel called 'Santa Claus Lodge', purely for the comedic nature of its name and my room though fairly basic, has air-con, a balcony and I'd discover next morning, a view of the ocean. Oh, and a pet millipede in the bathroom.

It was a really cheap day of travel. I wanted to do it 'local style' and swerve tourist buses or taxis, and the total cost for the bus (84r), ferry (15r) and train (50r) came to just 149 rupees - £1.49!

Varkala is a laid-back beach town with most of the hotels on the cliffs overlooking the beach. I enjoyed walked down the cliff path, past the restaurants and little clothes stalls and then spending the day on the beach. I hired a lounger and an umbrella for the frankly ridiculous price of 400 rupees (but what can you do?) and enjoyed whiling the day away, reading my book which I'm really enjoying ('Gone Girl') and going for a swim. I say 'swim', the waves were quite large, so I enjoyed doing battle with them.

It feels quite a hippyish place here. As I was reading my book, an Indian man approached and tried to sell me wooden bead necklaces. Half an hour later another man approached trying to sell me a bongo. It's that kind of place. The guys all seem to have lots of facial hair or silly hats and I saw a girl earlier who literally looked exactly like Lisbeth from the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. But I don't mind at all, it's got a chilled feel to the place. Each bar and restaurant plays western music (at an acceptable volume... I hope I don't sound too old when I say that) and as the sun starts to set you can see people doing yoga on the beach.

I've got another day of doing very little tomorrow and then I begin the long journey home.
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