I sat in Delhi airport waiting for my connecting flight to Kochi, where I was to begin my quest to conquer the land that so many of us are afraid of. Tell someone you’re backpacking around Thailand and they’ll say, “Enjoy the beautiful beaches”, tell someone that you’re backpacking India and they’ll say, “You’re mad, it’s too dangerous!”
I wasn’t scared of India, I’d been here before and I semi-knew what I was in for. I’ll admit though, a part of me was a little apprehensive. The apprehension could have come from many factors really. The fact that I spent the last month indulging in all the things I loved about my home culture and was about to throw myself head first into the most polar opposite of cultures. It might have been the fact that I was back on my own again, putting on a brave solo female traveller face, wondering whether I’d be met with my old friend loneliness or find my backpacking feet and meet other travellers. Or it could have been the fact that Delhi didn’t waste any time in providing me an unwarming welcome of annoyances and exertions in my small 5-hour layover, reminding me that in India nothing comes easy. For example when I asked for a place to exchange money and the information officer pointed me to a tiny unmanned desk, only to wait 20 minutes and then be told that they do not exchange Australian dollars. I then proceeded to ask for an ATM and low and behold there were none, because who needs an ATM when in transit??? So off to the mobile counter I went to ask for a local SIM where the gentleman looked at me with bewildered eyes and mumbled something like “we don’t have SIM’s on public holidays”. Of course it seemed feasible to employ someone to man the mobile desk just to tell people they have no services… So back to the information counter I went to ask about the only other option I had to connect to the world, and was thrown a 45 min free WI-FI code that could be used only if you have an Indian SIM. Welcome to India I thought, the place where nothing comes easy.
I’d calmed down from the irritation of what one could arguably consider as ‘first world problems’ once I arrived in Kochi. My arrival into a new place once again brought back that feeling of wanderlust and adventure that always takes over when I visit somewhere unexplored. I was alone but I was OK. I knew that this is where I was supposed to be. This colonial seaside town that was to be the starting point for my southern India journey, one that I had only planned 3 days of. What awaited me outside those airport doors was the unknown, but also the continuation of The Altruistic Traveller and the opportunity for more tales and stories from afar. The week after that was the first time I discovered that India was much more than the intimidating stereotypes it carries.
Kochi – The start of my Indian Adventure
The taxi dropped me off at the hostel and I walked into a room full of backpackers sitting around a table chatting around a couple of Lonely Planet guidebooks and a few beverages. This was probably the last sight I imagined as my first sight in India but one of the best sights I could have asked for. It calmed me knowing that there were others here on their own Indian journeys; other’s who were mad enough to come and conquer the land that we’re all afraid of.
The hostel was cozy, basic and cheap. My room cost only $6 a night, which is far less than any accommodation I had paid for in the previous 9 months of travel. It had everything I needed, including other traveller’s so I was happy to perch up for the next 3 days, explore Fort Kochi and try to give myself an Indian geography lesson because, to be honest, I had no idea where I was or where I was going.
My first morning in Kochi was spent working on a rough itinerary through India, documenting the projects and organisations I would visit, getting my bearings and researching what to do in Fort Kochi. It was a calm city, much calmer than I had expected given my last trip to India comprised of a whirlwind tour through one of the nations most chaotic regions, New Delhi and Jaipur, where I significantly remember one particular tuk tuk ride where I was sharing the road with trucks, cars, bikes, bicycles, camels and cows. Kochi was also cleaner than I had expected. Either that or the bar had been lowered when it came to my judgment of what I consider to be clean after 9 months in one of the dirtiest continents on earth (You can read about my take on Asia’s pollution problem here). Either way, it was a good start for me, and probably a good start for other backpackers easing their way into India. They do say that the south is much calmer than the north so if the rest of southern India were to be like Kochi then perhaps I’d be in for an easy ride.
3 days in Kochi flew by. From taking myself on my own street photography tours of town, to spending time with my new travelling posse, and taking in some more Keralan culture, which included a night out at the Kathakali dance show where I could have sworn I lost a small percentage of hearing given how loud the instrumentals were. All in all it’s a place that I would recommend to others purely due to its eccentric atmosphere and rustic architecture.
Colonial streets of Fort Cochin
The famous Chinese Fishing Nets of Fort Cochin
Street artist ‘Guess Who’ painting murals over Fort Cochin
Goats on the road – A typical sight in India
Old decrepit buildings from yesteryear
Kathakali dance through expression
Extravagant Kathakali costumes
Alleppey – Bays, backwaters and the start of the curry-free diet
The following day we took a local bus down to Alleppey, the gateway to the Kerala Backwaters. Kerala is the state in which Kochi and Alleppey sit and is famous for the Kerala Backwaters, a network of 1500 kilometres of canals, 38 rivers and 5 big lakes extending from one end of Kerala to the other. It is probably one of the most famous, if not the most famous sights of southern India, a lush, green imprint on an otherwise dry landscape.
The local bus was an experience in itself, and one that would boost my confidence in travelling by local transport for the rest of my journey. The buses here are old, battered and probably in need of a service but manage to transport India’s 1 billion + people across this great land, and for literally pennies. The bus cost us 20 rupee to get to Alleppey, that’s the equivalent of about 40 cents.
Alleppey didn’t have a huge choice for accommodation but we managed to get ourselves into a seaside hostel right on the beach for a whopping $4 per night. India was proving to be the cheapest place I have been in the whole world, having what would be my daily budget now spread over 3 – 4 days. My plan in Alleppey was to spend one day exploring the backwaters and the other day doing the usual digital nomad stuff, although it was becoming concerningly difficult to find any sort of Wi-Fi in this supposed land of the IT specialists.
The backwaters were lovely, peaceful canals running through small communities and out into large lakes. Little canoes and huge houseboats shared the waters, taking tourists and locals across the river. I sat on the boat we had organised through a tour agency and watched as the local Keralan people went about their daily lives, using the canals as their main water source. Some washing clothes, others washing dishes and many washing themselves, which was rather strange to see. It couldn’t have been the cleanest water but then again this is what they’re used to and the people here don’t exactly have the most efficient plumbing systems, if any at all. It’s sights like these that you eventually become accustomed to in India. It’s a different way of life here and I’m sure it would only become clearer to me on my journey just how different it really is.
The next day my travelling friends decided to rent a houseboat, which I opted out of due to my digital nomad commitments. That was the night I had an unfortunate incident with a cashew nut and I realised that I was going to have to tread very carefully in this country that seems to have a loving relationship with the tree nut that I would have to call my arch nemesis. I’ve been to 9 countries in Asia where cashews are considered a luxury and therefore rarely used, and here in India you can find them in anything and everything, from curry, to chocolate to tea dunking biscuits. When it comes to food cashews and I don’t go well together and even the smallest interaction with my mouth will cause an allergic reaction. So I spent the night sick, freaking out and hoping that I didn’t have to go into any local hospital, that is if there even was one. That was the night I officially and ironically went on a curry free diet in India, the land of curries. I joined the gluten frees and the lactose intolerants and the people that have to tread carefully around menus. I became ‘that’ person in the restaurant. All for a good reason though.
The day after Alleppey and my unfortunate cashew incident I was back on my feet and ready to hit the road. The next stop was Munnar, a place up in the mountains that has one of the highest tea plantations in India, a change of scenery and altitude, and another new place to explore.
The beautiful, calm Kerala backwaters
The small canoes we rode in
Washing dishes in the canals
Washing clothes in the canals
Scenes from the boat ride
Moving further down the rabbit hole
In my first week in India I had yet to find any social projects or stories to share so I decided to start sharing my personal experiences of India, this being my first entry. I forgot how much I enjoyed just writing about my experiences, my adventures to far away places and my views of the world around me.
So far I feel like Alice in Wonderland in a world that’s upside down in many ways, with India being even further down the rabbit hole than I thought. But that rabbit hole does seem to intrigue me so I think I’ll just keep floating down it to see what I can find….