Sunday, 11 February 2018

Backwaters and Highlands of Kerala

The next ‘mustn’t miss’ place on our list was the Kerala Backwaters, a series of canals winding inland from the coast and home to some of the only below-sea-level farmland in the world. On the ride to Alleppey we encountered some of the worst drivers of the trip so far. The levels of chance-taking were insane, drivers super aggressive. It’s hard to explain how tiring it is to constantly have to be so switched on. It means you see little of the countryside you’re passing because to take your eyes off the road for even a second would be suicidal.
Let me start here by talking a bit about the roads in India, because they really are the main source of our frustration here. More so I suppose the attitude of the people on them.

India has a culture very different to everywhere else I’ve ever been. Power and status are all important, none more so than on the roads. It really is each man for himself. As I explained before, dominance of anyone smaller than yourself is the norm, even when it’s not necessary and there is more than enough space for both of co-exist quite happily. Repeatedly we find that as soon as we pull over to the side of the road to stop for a moment and check our route, a car will pull up behind us honking his horn repeatedly, insisting we move because he wants to park his car in exactly the spot we’ve stopped in. I’m not talking about parking spaces here, this happens on long open stretches of road with not another vehicle in sight and endless verges.

Whether walking or riding, ignoring horns really is at your peril. People here drive with their finger continuously on the horn button. I can totally appreciate how eventually you would end up like Michael Douglas in Falling Down, reaching your breaking point and going on a rampage. The noise is unnecessary and intense. People drive within a hair’s breadth of you and if you choose not to move you can expect to be mown down. If you look the culprit in the eye you get a ‘well, I honked didn’t I?’ look of indifference. One day we were passed by a particularly aggressive, idiotic bus driver who drove at maniacal speeds through the heavy traffic. A few vehicles further down the road he lost a wing mirror to a truck who was minding his own business, driving exactly where he was entitled to drive. The bus driver misjudged his gap and a coming together occurred. To our surprise, the bus driver immediately jumped from his vehicle, climbed the side of the truck, punched the poor truck driver in the face, demanding compensation from him, which the truck driver duly handed over. Total insanity. One thing that amuses me constantly are the vehicles that have signs on the back saying ‘Rash driving? Please call 91##### to report’. Um, yeah?!

The worst culprits of the above though are definitely men. I know from experience that many of them have very small dicks (evidenced by the fact so many of them seem to want to go out of their way to deliberately turn and wave them in my direction whilst they’re peeing by the roadside or when they suddenly feel the need to pull up and re-tie their longhi as I pass, something that happened a lot in Tamil Nadu) and their displays of chest puffing and aggressive dominance on the road only goes to support that proverbial theory. As a white, foreign woman, overtaking them more often than not leads to fits of rage. Men in cars, as I explained previously, usually feel the need to roar back past me with only inches to spare, to ‘teach me a lesson’ I guess and put me in my place.

What has surprised me the most though is that there is absolutely no camaraderie amongst bikers here. Guys on bikes when overtaken usually overtake me back before cutting back in sharply and slowing down, forcing me to slow down too. If I try to pull out and overtake again they deliberately obstruct to the point it becomes dangerous. Really, my only option is to slow right down and stop or just drop back and ignore them until they get tired of it. Dealing with this day in, day out though makes me cranky and causes murderous thoughts. I seem to spend a lot of my riding time willing these people to get squashed by trucks or knocked off their bikes by rampaging cows.


Nonetheless, we reached Alleppey alive, tired and fed up, so when the $7 a night hotel room we’d pre-booked turned out to be much nicer than its price tag suggested it would be, we were at least relieved at that. We had done a little reading about the backwaters prior to arriving and had discovered that taking overnight trips on the famous thatched canal boats was extortionately expensive, some costing several hundred dollars a night. Instead we decided to use the public ferries that run between various locations on the waterways and the next day hopped on to one we found waiting at the dock. 

As it turned out it wasn’t a public ferry, but an in-between option, a government run tourist boat that offered a few hours trip around the area for a small fee, mostly for domestic tourists. Sadly, the backwaters proved to be yet another thing that didn’t quite live up to the hype. It was interesting enough, but if you’ve ever been on a boat trip on a river before or seen small, local communities then the backwaters are quite underwhelming and upon our return to Alleppey a few hours later we decided we didn’t need to see any more.

Made by coke, tastes like coke, not coke.

That evening we took a tuk tuk to Alleppey beach to watch the sunset and were pleased to find that, whilst very much a local beach, it was actually a beach rather than a mass housing camp as we’d found in Chennai. Local kids came and sat and chatted with us as we drank cardamom tea and ate gobi bhaji. Cows wandered past looking for a spot to settle for the night and, as the sun dropped, the balloon and kite sellers packed up their wares after another long days work.

Leaving the area we climbed steeply through tea country and through some of the most breathtakingly beautiful landscapes we’ve seen yet in India. Huge poinsettia bushes lined the narrow roadways with tea plantations beyond them, stretched out as far as the eye can see. From time to time we stopped to watch the tea pickers work, snipping the tea tips with clever little contraptions that collected the trimmings into a small bag before depositing it into their sacks. I feel like I should point out here that the photos that follow are in no way edited, the saturation is not enhanced - the tea plantations we passed through really were that vivid, indescribable shade of green. It was especially good to get out of the bigger towns and into areas with less traffic.

Later in the day, just as we were reaching our concentration limit for the day we arrived in Coimbatore, a horrendous, sprawling town with cross sections every couple of hundred yards where we had to run the gauntlet of crossing traffic, virtually closing our eyes and hoping to pop out the other side unscathed. Along the way we stopped at ATM after ATM trying to find one that would work, but to no avail. On the whole my bank cards have proved more reliable, but Evan’s was refused repeatedly on this particular day, even by companies that had previously provided cash. A check on his online banking later on showed that a couple of these refused transactions were showing up his statement, causing disputes that are still ongoing some weeks later. It seems that every aspect of everything we do here has its trials. Ironically, my card also got blocked by my bank that day – not for attempting to take out 20,000 rupees in cash which it allowed me to do quite happily over two transactions, but for trying to pay for a 198 rupee phone top up, the equivalent of £2.20.

Yes, this man really was herding 50 ducklings through heavy traffic, along a busy city street using a bamboo cane...

Our main reason for being in this area was to take a ride on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, a metre gauge railway built by the British in 1908. Now recognised by UNESCO, it runs from the town of Mettupalayam up to Ooty over 40 or so kilometres, a journey that takes over 7 hours one way on account of the gradient. We assumed that it would be simple enough to just show up at the train station in the morning and ride to Ooty and back in a day, but we should have known by now that is never the case.

Luckily, we mentioned our plans to the receptionist at our guesthouse as we arrived and he immediately said ‘Ah, you book tickets online already?’ Our first sign that this wasn’t going to be as easy as we had anticipated. Apparently, tickets for this train are sold out three months in advance, with the exception of 60 seats that go on sale each morning prior to the train’s single daily departure at 7.10am. His advice was to be at the station by 5.30am to have any chance of getting tickets. A stop at the station ticket office that evening confirmed this advice, but with a suggestion that we’d need to be there at 4.30am to have any chance of securing a seat. We debated just how badly we wanted to ride on this train, but came to the conclusion that we had nothing to gain by not trying and headed back to our room for an early night.

Not so bright and breezy at 4.30am we arrived at the station to find a handful of people already there, all domestic tourists. Shortly after a local guide who seemed to know the system showed up to queue sit for a couple of clients and so the official queuing started. For the next two hours we stood in line, ready to defend our places should anyone feel they had a right to jump the queue, but on the whole people were pretty good. At 6.30am the station master appeared and worked his way down the line handing small slips of paper to each of us in turn. We were then pointed towards a carriage where we were allocated seats. Evan at this point tried to get up to go and use the bathroom, but was shooed back to his seat with a curt ‘I’ll tell you when you can go!’ from the conductor. It was every bit like a school outing. Presently there was a kerfuffle as people clambered to leave the carriage and a local guy explained to us that one of us should now leave and cross the road to the ticket office to buy tickets.

It was at this point that things turned a little sour. Whilst Evan went to purchase our tickets, a group of women who did not have slips of paper decided they were going to storm our carriage. I presume they were locals who lived in Ooty, but they were the vilest people I have yet had the misfortune to meet here. One older lady pushed her way through the aisle and plonked herself down firmly in Evan’s seat before I had the chance to move across and block her. Attempts by others in the carriage to tell her she could not sit there fell on deaf ears and when I tried to politely explain she slapped and scratched at my arms and took books from her bag thrusting them into my lap and babbling angrily at me. Eventually Evan returned and she obviously decided she didn’t want to mess with him, so reluctantly she moved further down the carriage. It’s unusual in this country for anyone to get involved in any dispute that doesn’t directly involve them so I appreciated that others tried to come to our assistance.

Eventually, as other people returned to discover they’d lost their seats while paying for them, someone called over the station master and a police officer who had been so steadfast in their control of the queue and allocation of the seats. Expecting the women to be escorted off the train I was surprised when both men simply shrugged and walked away. For the entire journey these women bullied people out of their seats, sat on their luggage and were generally revolting. One lady parked herself square in the middle of the floor at the exit point and refused to move each time the train stopped for breaks, causing everyone who wanted to leave to have to climb over her. People who did leave the train inevitably returned to find their seat had been taken and many had to stand for several hours after. It was a relief when the train finally pulled into Ooty.

Those vile women aside, the train ride itself provided an interesting snapshot of the mountain countryside in the area as the little steam train huffed and puffed, struggling to push its three carriages up the steep inclines. As we passed through tunnels everyone screamed, not just the kids. This trip is clearly a big deal for domestic tourists too. One lady from Bangalore I was talking to was on her way to start a pilgrimage with her husband and they had left a few days early just so she could ride the train, something she said she had always wanted to do but never had. They had arrived late the previous night and stayed in the station dorm as it was all they could afford if they wanted to take the train too. The train only cost 15 rupees each, or 17p.

THOSE women...

A quick stop in Ooty for dinner of very spicy ‘not spicy’ chicken and rice and we were back on the train for the return journey, this time with much more respectful company. What seemed like a very long time after we left that morning the train finally pulled back into Mettupalayam and we dragged our weary selves back to our room and straight to bed.

1 comment:

  1. Dear oh dear. I guess you'll have no desires on visiting again. I couldn't cope with the traffic or the hostile people. I do hope it gets better for you as you travel further. Take care xx