Train is definitely my favourite way to get around India ay. Buses are great and all that and you don’t have to book half your life in advance but they’re not as comfortable, you can’t get up and walk around and if you decide you need the toilet well, that’s just tough titties, sweetheart. Sometimes trains don’t have to be booked way ahead of time though. There are Tatkal tickets which are an emergency stash of tickets that Indian Railways keep back until 10am the previous day, or there are Foreign Quota tickets on some routes, and if you’re only travelling for a few hours then you can buy a general ticket on the day and jump in an unreserved carriage but you’re not guaranteed a seat. Or any personal space for that matter. But that’s ok for around four hours.
From a train, you really can watch India go by and catch fleeting glimpses of life in bum fuck nowhere. In the north, you see cramped villages built from concrete, people practically live on top of each other. Houses are built mere metres from the railway lines where trains thunder through at all hours, blasting their horn. It’s dusty and dirty and so so busy, and the smell is awful. You see emaciated cows and people patting the cow shit into discs which they dry in the sun and later use or sell for fuel. There are shanty towns, people living in squalor in structures they’ve fashioned from plastic and tarps and whatever they can find. There’s so much rubbish everywhere, so much crap. Everywhere looks like a fucking landfill as people try to scratch out a living in the filth.
In in the south? Dude, it’s so much different! It’s so green down here and whilst I’m sure poverty is as rife here as it is in the north, you don’t see it from the train between Udupi and Kochin. All you see are banana trees, palm trees and banyan trees. The houses you cruise past are huge, set in lush jungle either spaced well apart from each other or with no close neighbours that you can see. There’s litter by the side of the tracks because people will always throw litter from trains but apart from that it’s so clean. Maybe I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t notice a few water bottle or crisp packets now after the piles of garbage in Rajasthan that people just wandered out of their houses and added to, but since I got south of Mumbai, everything seems less littered. More pleasant. Still India, just a nicer, calmer, friendlier India that doesn’t want to rinse you of all of your money.
And those five words of Hindi that you learned that you’re still too scared to use in case you pronounce it wrong and offend someone? Forget them, sunshine. Malayalam is the language spoken in Kerala. The familiar yet indecipherable Hindi signs are replaced down here by a rounder, curlier script. It’s really attractive! It makes me want to get a tattoo of it but I’ve no idea what I’d want it to say. I don’t think it matters. You could have, “Please don’t throw rubbish in the toilet” written on your arm in Malayalam and it’d still look awesome.
But anyway, I’d had a bizarre few days. No one had tried to get me to buy something I didn’t want or need for ages and I kept getting quoted fair prices for rickshaw rides. One guy in Udupi had even put the meter on. I wasn’t too sure was to make of it, it was like the fucking Twilight Zone or some shit. When I got off the train in Kochi I wasn’t pounced on by drivers asking me if I needed a “good, cheap guest house, madam?” and as I wandered through Ernakulam towards the main jetty I wasn’t accosted by anyone who considered it an appropriate time to ask me if I wanted to indulge in some manner of tourist activity whilst I had a large bag strapped to my back.
I got on the ferry, alighted in Fort Cochin and ohhhhhh namaskaram India! There you are! I was starting to worry about you! I dug out the “fuck off” glare that I’d learned in Rajasthan and began to utilise it as I shuffled past shop keepers, rickshaw drivers and men running out of restaurants, thrusting menus at me. It’s actually not too bad here, certainly not as bad as the north, but when you’re oozing sweat (and oozing is the only appropriate way to lose fluid in this kind of humidity) from every pore and you just want to get to your guest house and stick your head under a cold tap the only way you’re going to do this is with a stride as purposeful as possible when you have no idea where you’re going but you know it’s not worth ₹100 in a rickshaw whilst chanting, “No thank you, not later either, I don’t need a room, I’m not hungry right now,” like a fucking mantra.
One thing I do generally want once I’ve settled into a place and need to replenish my fluids is a beer. Back in August, Kerala took steps towards becoming the dry state it wants to be. They closed down most bars and liquor stores apart from the state liquor stores and bars in the larger, luxury hotels. I didn’t think this would be a problem in a place as foreign-friendly as Fort Cochin. I figured they’d just wrap the bottle up in tin foil or decant it into a teapot and serve it with a coffee mug and a bowl of sugar because clearly that’d fool the local cops. But nope. Everywhere I asked just gave me a flat no. This confused me, I wasn’t used to rules being obeyed in India, there was usually some manner of workaround that’d unite tourists with the things they desired most and the things tourists desire often involve fall down juice. “There is some problem with beer,” I was told. Hmm. Fort Cochin needs to have a little chat with Pushkar about their beer problem. And whilst there’s no beer on the menu, officially or otherwise (unless you go to the actual licensed bars which I was pleased to find out did exist) there’s beef. Like, actual dead cow. I’d noticed the distinct lack of bovines strolling around the place and figured this wasn’t a coincidence. It turns out there are less Hindus here and more Christians and Christians, it seems, aren’t too fussed about consuming the odd cow sandwich.
Fort Cochin, isn’t the prettiest place either, bless its slightly grubby cotton socks. Its most photogenic attractions, the Chinese fishing nets, get photobombed by the oil refinery if you don’t point your camera just right, and I couldn’t get one of the stunning sunset photos you see on the postcards because, well, there was no fucking sun whilst I was there. One day it even rained. Rained is an understatement. Think buckets. If there is a god and he lives in the sky then he has a serious plumbing issue he needs to get sorted before we all drown.
If you ever feel like bitching about your job then count yourself lucky that you don’t spend your day lowering and raising Chinese fishing nets in and out of the water though ay. The fishing nets are pretty awesome looking, if not wildly impractical and if you stand around looking gormless for long enough they’ll invite you on to take some photos, or you can just ask. They won’t say no because you’ll be paying them for the privilege. I was waved over so on I went where one guy took my camera and got me to pose on the net like it was some manner of Vogue photo shoot, then they got me to help haul the net up as they chanted. Even with four people it’s fucking hard work. As if I wasn’t sweating enough! Back in the day, the poles used to be made purely from bamboo but these days they’re metal and pulling them in is aided by big rocks tied to ropes hanging off the end. Once they’ve checked for fish in the net, two blokes have to walk up the sides to lower it back in where it’ll remain for around 10 minutes. It seems like a lot of effort for shore fishing, you’d probably have more luck with a hand line and some bait. Oh, and as for tipping, it doesn’t matter how much you give them, they’ll still ask for more. They must have had their tourist relation training in Rajasthan.
And if you fancied stuffing a bit of fish into your facehole then this would probably be the place to do it. You can buy dead stuff dragged from the ocean all along this area and certain restaurants will cook it for you for a fee. Don’t worry about finding out which ones, there’ll probably be a bloke loitering around the stalls who’ll kindly let you know, enunciating the name of his venue to make sure you remember it. Apparently it’s a huge tourist rip off. Here’s the thing though, I fucking love seafood and I was seriously tempted by the idea of buying something and having it cooked at one of the overpriced restaurants that offered the service, buuuuuut I don’t want anything that came from that water anywhere near my digestive system. It looks feral. One of the guys from the hostel braved a dip and said it just felt greasy and there was oil and rotting, dead stuff, and the next day he broke out in a rash. I’m not even shitting you. I mean, the fish, crabs, prawns, squids etc for sale down by the nets might have come from way out in the ocean but fuck it, I want to be sure. I want those fuckers geotagged and tracked thankyouverymuch.
And guys, I’ve found tea! An actual, honest to god proper cup of tea! I think I’ve been in India long enough now to be allowed to want tea and cake and generally awesome western food without being judged. A chick can’t live off masala dosa alone. Sometimes (ok, fine, every other day) she needs a blueberry cheesecake in her life.
Fort Cochin, Kerala, India
Staying at: Princess Inn