Coming from Singapore, India’s like a different world; cows at bus stops, blokes in skirts*, people eating with their hands, shoeless pedestrians on dirty roads, entire families on one motorbike (sans helmets), regular power cuts, straight men holding hands, and incessant car horns during my siesta. It took a while to acclimatise.
Three days into our modest Fort Kochi homestay, our wedding anniversary tempts us away from the backpacker life and into the slightly upmarket Malabar House. It proves to be a turning point, as we decide a return to Indian hostels would be too great a contrast to handle, and follow it with a less salubrious hotel in Alapphuza instead. It’s there we’re talked into using a driver (or chauffeur as the wife called him) to take us on an 8 day road trip around south Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
It turned out to be the best way to see South India, as we saw far more than we would have done on our own. Our driver was a friendly chap, spoke 4 languages and was happy to answer any questions we had on India, the people, and their way of life.
However, I did feel some guilt each evening as we sauntered back to our hotel room with its en suite toilet, king size bed and Nat Geo, that our driver was facing another night kipping in the car. But he assured us he was happy in there, it had air con, music, and compared to the homes of the people we’d passed on the way, was practically a palace.
Our road trip took us in many temples. They call Kerala “god’s own country” well they’ve got enough of them – Krishna, Shiva, Ganesha, Vishnu (there are more, I lose count). They’ve even turned one of their citizens into a god – a woman called Amma. They believe she is a guru and queue for hours just for a hug. Out of curiosity we pay her a visit. One of her entourage ask me if I’d like an embrace from the old lady. When I tell them I’m leaving soon I’m offered the chance to queue jump. My ambivalent response – “nah, you’re alright”, was met with genuine surprise.
Our journey takes us into Tamil Nadu and the friendly Keralites are replaced by the more needy and persistent Tamils. Here, my Anglo-Saxon heritage is seen as green light for money requests – as if I’m some kind of white Mario Balotelli (there might be penalty taking similarities, but giver of free money I’m not). Having said that, the children of both states couldn’t have been more friendly. They run up with smiling faces and want nothing more than to either practice their English, or have their photo taken (and then preview the result).
On the eating with hands thing, I’m told it’s very common in South India but less so as you move north. One lady even claimed it was more hygienic as it avoids the chance of germs being on the spoon. She also believes the fingers have sensors that stimulate the digestive system. Maybe she’s right – I’m getting a bit peckish typing this (…on the other hand it could be complete cobblers).
All in all the road trip was intriguing, disturbing and enjoyable. It did feel slightly decadent being driven around by a man who called me Sir and the wife as Madame, so to redress the balance we followed it up with a week in an ashram (…but that’s another story).
*Dhoti – formal. Lunghi – casual (traditional attire for men)